The Folger Shakespeare Library

Near the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.,  stands the Folger Library, repository of 82 Shakespeare First Folios — the largest collection in the world by far of these precious volumes.

The Folger Library, 201 Capitol St. SE, was the gift to the United States of  Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger (1858-1936).  Mr. Folger and his wife were lifelong lovers of Shakespeare and collectors of his works, including First Folios, Quartos, artwork, mementos of performances, and additional material related to the Elizabethan Era and the theatre.

They planned the library as a repository of their collections and as a permanent institution in the U.S. for the scholarly study of Shakespeare and his era and the continuing appreciation of reading and performing his works.  Built at a cost of $2 million, the library opened in 1932 with an original endowment of $10 million. The Folger is administered by the Trustees of Amherst College in Massachusetts, alma mater of H. C. Folger.
On the day I visited in March, students were performing snippets of the Bard’s plays and having a hilarious time doing so, under the direction of a professional actress in Elizabethan costume, and before an audience of fellow students, parents and teachers.
Below, a view of the Folger’s theatre, without the gleeful group, but showing all its timbered glory.  The theatre is also used for fully staged productions, literary and theatrical awards ceremonies, performances of the Folger Consort, and other activities.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Elizabethan Theatre

The Folger presents many special exhibitions.  The one I visited, Shakespeare’s Sisters, was enlightening. I will blog about it soon.

Central to the Folger’s mission is scholarship.  Imagine how privileged one would be to receive a reader’s card and be able to conduct research here in the Reading Room.  When I visited, we were allowed only a peek at the premises, which are reserved for serious studies.  At the end of the room is the immense window depicting the Seven Ages of Man (from As You Like It).
The window, designed especially for the Folger, was executed by the Philadelphia stained glass studio of Nicola D’Ascenzo (1871-1954) in 1932.
Emily Jordan Folger by Frank O. Salisbury, 1927
Henry Clay Folger, by Frank O. Salisbury, 1927
On the exterior of the building, scenes from Shakespeare’s favorite plays are captured in white marble bas relief sculptures.  Above, a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Below, Richard III.
Though the Folger’s mission focuses on a writer from hundreds of yeara go and his world, the library’s resources and  techniques are decidedly up-to-date.  Their website (here) is excellent, worth hours of browsing.  Many parts of the collection are available digitally, as described here.  Hamnet is their free on-line catalogue.   The Folger has blogs, facebook pages, and can be found on itunes, youtube and twitter, among other sites.  The Conservation Lab is in the forefront of preserving fragile and delicate materials.
First Folio, Folger Shakespeare Library
In 2011, the Folger sponsored an exhibition “Fame, Fortune, and Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio,”   which told many stories of the creation, acquisition, sales and losses of these precious documents. Since the Folger has the world’s largest collection of First Folios (82 at present), it was the perfect venue to explore the topic.  First Folios, in case you have forgotten your college Shakespeare facts, are editions of the Bard’s plays published in 1623, which contained many plays never before published. In the world today, just over 230 First Folios are known to exist. 
One of many representations of Shakespeare at the Folger
 The Founder’s Room
Portrait of Elizabeth I, the “Sieve” portrait
by George Gower, 1579
in the Folger Collection
The above costume replicating the Elizabethan gown in the portrait was worn by actress Michael Learned in the 2003 Folger Theatre production of Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Adnerson (1888-1959).  Ms. Learned required the assistance of a dresser to put on the costume which weighed more than twenty pounds.
Washington’s warm March weather favored growth in the library’s Elizabethan Garden
Watch for our report on Shakespeare’s Sisters:
Voices of English and European Women Writers,
1500-1700, on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library to May 20, 2012

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