“To be, or not to be—that is the question.”

Those might be the most famous words in all of English literature. But are they the original words in "Hamlet?"

That is also the question, and just one of the many things you’ll encounter at the exhibit “Shakespeare Unauthorized” at the Boston Public Library, which includes some of the earliest and rarest surviving copies of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

Jay Moschella, the curator of the exhibit, joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the collection. 

JIM BRAUDE: You have one of the largest Shakespeare collections anywhere. Why did I not know this?

JAY MOSCHELLA: We have a major, world-class Shakespeare collection. We have the first major Shakespeare collection in the United States. This is something that’s been with the BPL since 1873. It’s not a new development. It’s a worldwide center of scholarship…We purchased it from a very major collector who was in the circle of Andrew Jackson, a wealthy country gentleman who spent his whole life in the 19th century building a personal collection of Shakespeare, going around Europe scouring auction houses there. He put this whole thing together himself. It was his life’s work. He died in 1869 and through a complicated series of intrigues, the city put together the funding to buy it from his widow a few years later.

BRAUDE: This is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the city also did something to commemorate the 300th year. How high-profile has Shakespeare and the stuff you have been when you've not been doing a major terrific show like this one here?

MOSCHELLA: It’s high-profile for scholars and people coming to use it. People from Boston don’t necessarily always know we have these collections. We’re not a museum, so we don’t have these things on exhibit all the time. They’re not the kinds of things you’d walk through and see. We provide a different kind of service. The visibility is not always the same.

MARGERY EAGAN: Tell us about this "First Folio" that’s significant.

MOSCHELLA: This is one of the more exciting things here. It’s one of the very few rare books that exists in popular culture, the "First Folio," like the Gutenberg Bible. This was the first collected edition of Shakespeare's works. It was printed seven years after his death. Those facts don’t sound inherently exciting on their own, but what the "First Folio" was was essentially the first edition of half of Shakespeare's plays. It’s one book, you can see it in the gallery right now. It’s the first edition of "Macbeth," for example. It’s the first edition of "The Tempest" and of "Julius Caesar." What goes beyond in importance is those 18 plays, it’s reasonable to assume, would have been lost if not printed in this particular book. Most of the plays from Shakespeare’s era no longer exist.

EAGAN: What does it look like?

MOSCHELLA: It’s a printed book. If you see it, you’ll recognize it – it contains a very iconic portrait of Shakespeare right on the title page. It has a large engraving. It’s about the size of an encyclopedia. It’s a beautiful book to see. 

BRAUDE: This was written after Shakespeare’s death, but you also have things that were contemporaneous.

MOSCHELLA: We do. These kinds of books, the individual books of his plays printed during his lifetime, are tremendously rare. We have a significant collection of those and many of them are on display in the hall. For instance, you can see the first edition of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" which is a tiny little book, one of eight copies that exist in the world. There are many things like that on display right now.

BRAUDE: Do you have notes and things of his? Of Shakespeare himself?

MOSCHELLA: Would that we did! One of the interesting back stories about this is that, despite what you might think, Shakespeare—the most important writer in the English language—basically almost none of his handwriting exists. There are 14 words that are undisputedly in his hand, 12 of those are the name “William Shakespeare” written six different times. One of the biographical mysteries or challenges we explore in the exhibition is: how do you know what Shakespeare really wrote if his handwriting doesn’t survive?

To hear more from Jay Moschella, tune in to Boston Public Radio above. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.