The Largest Trove of Shakespeare Treasures? It’s Not Where You Think.

On the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, find out how one couple helped foster Washington, D.C.’s obsession with the Bard.

Quick: Name the city with the biggest crush on Shakespeare.

Though London and Stratford-Upon-Avon have historic ties to the Bard, Washington, D.C., claims the largest collection of Shakespeariana in the world, housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library, on Capitol Hill. The city also boasts at least three theater companies devoted to performing the playwright’s works.

Folger Shakespeare Library

“D.C. has a voracious appetite for Shakespeare,” said the Folger’s publicity manager, Peter Eramo. It all started with the singular obsession of one man: Henry Clay Folger. And he wasn’t even a Washingtonian.

The story of how lifelong New Yorker Henry Clay Folger became the world’s foremost Shakespeare collector and how his collection ended up in D.C. is intriguingly told in the recently published book “The Millionaire and the Bard,” by Andrea Mays (who lives part-time in D.C.).

Born in Manhattan in 1857, Folger wasn’t from a wealthy family or even one with a reputation for arts patronage. He made his money not with coffee—that was his uncle—but by rising through the ranks to become head of Standard Oil, as the company itself rose to prominence.

He and his wife, Emily, had always found pleasure in reading Shakespeare and watching his plays performed. As their fortunes grew, so did their interest in tracking down and buying all things connected with the playwright, from playbills to artwork—but, above all, First Folios.

Published in 1623, the First Folio is the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s now the world’s most valuable book. Mays records that in 2001 a First Folio sold at Christie’s for more than $6 million. Only some 750 copies were printed, and only about 245 of them are known to survive. (One was recently discovered on a Scottish island.) The Folger Shakespeare Library owns 82, the most in the world.

Folger’s Paster Reading Room with First Folio

The Folgers chose Washington as the site for a library to house their vast collection for three reasons: the city’s cheaper real estate prices compared to New York; Emily’s familiarity with the city, having spent her childhood here as the daughter of the Treasury Department solicitor; and as Emily later said, “it is advantageously situated, it is beautiful, and it constantly is growing in cultural significance.”

Henry died in 1930 before the library was completed, but Emily survived to see it finished to exactly their vision and officially dedicated on April 23, 1932, Shakespeare’s 368th birthday. The library’s classical facade matches marble for marble the monumental white edifices of Capitol Hill neighbors like the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court.

But step inside, and you’ll find yourself transported to an impressive but intimate Elizabethan manor house, with dark wood paneling, carved heraldic crests on the walls and elaborate stained glass windows. One of Folger’s First Folios is always on display in the Great Hall, open to the title page with its famous portrait of Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout. A touch screen below the folio’s case allows visitors to digitally leaf page by page through “Romeo and Juliet.

The Great Hall at Folger Shakespeare Library

The Great Hall hosts a continuous roster of temporary exhibits drawn mostly from the library’s collections. In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the library offers a year’s worth of special exhibitions, including “America’s Shakespeare,” revealing his influence on this side of the pond (April 7-July 24), and “Will and Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” about the connection between and enduring appeal of those two literary rock stars (Aug. 6-Nov. 6).

Though the Tudor-style Paster Reading Room is reserved for scholars, library staff opens it to the general public for the annual Shakespeare birthday celebration in April and leads free tours every Saturday at noon (sign up ahead of time). At one end of the room lie interred the ashes of Henry Clay and Emily Folger, below a replica of the Shakespeare bust that stands at his gravesite in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

A testament to how auspicious their D.C. choice turned out to be, the library isn’t just a static memorial but has become a lively part of the city’s cultural life. In addition to lectures, readings, concerts, educational programs and family events, the Folger presents a regular season of plays in its Elizabethan-style theater.

Folger Theatre

“It’s amazing to perform Shakespeare at the Folger,” says esteemed local actress Holly Twyford, who starred in the theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in January 2016. “I mean, you’re down the hall from the First Folio.”

You won’t have to travel far from the Folger to find another acclaimed interpreter of the Bard. The Shakespeare Theatre Company occupies two stages downtown: the Lansburgh and Sidney Harman Hall. The company, headed by Michael Kahn, started out at the Folger but moved to Penn Quarter in 1992, helping to revitalize the now bustling zone.

Big-name guest stars including Stacy Keach, Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren have joined productions, and every summer, free performances of a Shakespeare classic draw large audiences, some new to the Bard. The company received the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award and continues hitting it out of the park, with a 2015-16 season that includes an all-male production of “The Taming of the Shrew” (May 17-June 26).

“The fact that there are theaters here in D.C. that not only do Shakespeare but devote themselves to it, you don’t see that in other cities,” says Kahn, a 2013 inductee of the Theater Hall of Fame. “There isn’t one in New York.”

“The Tempest” at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Synetic Theater, in Crystal City, Virginia, does wordless, movement-based takes on Shakespeare (“Hamlet…the rest is silence”), while Taffety Punk Theatre Company performs “bootleg” versions, in which actors rehearse, memorize, block and stage a production in 24 hours.

“For a town this size, D.C. just consumes a lot of Shakespeare,” says Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham. “It has to do with the audience’s skill set. D.C. is full of politicians and lawyers who work with language and rhetoric.” Graham says they particularly appreciate the “Machiavellian” history plays. “They love the game, they get it.”

You’ll find yet another Shakespeare connection in D.C., next door to the Folger at the Library of Congress. A Shakespeare statue overlooks the Jefferson Building’s own grand and gorgeous Reading Room, along with the likes of Moses, Beethoven and Isaac Newton.

Lofty company, for sure, but the Folgers’ driving force behind establishing their library was to make Shakespeare accessible for all. And that’s the inspiration for the Folger library’s most ambitious exhibition ever, in honor of the 400th anniversary: a nationwide tour of First Folios that stops in every state and Puerto Rico in 2016.

It’s a brave new world—and the magnanimous Folgers would have wholeheartedly agreed to let their “boys” (as they fondly referred to their First Folios) out into it. 

Amy Alipio
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