Saturday, April 30, 2016

Photo of the Day: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

This past month marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, but before the celebrations fade away, I wanted to discuss what might be the central point, at least in the United States, for all things about The Bard. No, I’m not referring to a theater—despite the fact that Shakespeare’s enduring fame was earned as a dramatist (and, come to think of it, plays are performed in a theater within this particular building).

No, I’m talking about the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital is so dense with museums and historic sites that competing for a visitor’s limited attention is all but impossible. But this rectangular building is located on Capitol Hill, only a short walk from the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress. I spent a good part of a day in just this area last November, and found the time well spent—including at this building, home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.

The building represented the culmination of decades of collecting by a most unlikely pair: Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily (herself a noted Shakespeare scholar). After marrying in 1885, they rented a small apartment in Brooklyn. Childless, the couple poured much of their energy into their powerful bibliomania, to such a point that their collection eventually could not be contained in their home.

Coming from a family with little money at their disposal, Folger had been frugal, even doing his own laundry at Amherst College. After running out of money at the end of sophomore year, he had his tuition paid for his last two years by the father of his classmate and friend, Charles Pratt, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist for whom Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute is named.

Folger graduated from Columbia Law School in 1881. His knowledge of law made him instrumental in fighting antitrust legislation of the early 1900s, and after Charles Pratt sold his company to Standard Oil, Folger became President of Sunoco in 1911.

In other words, Folger not only had the burning interest in nearly everything related to Shakespeare, but the fortune to help pay for it. As the dimensions of his ambitions became more apparent, many Britons were annoyed that so many of the materials related to their greatest literary figure would leave the country.

A shrewd collector, Folger kept his identity secret as much as possible so as not to drive up prices. He paid cash to get discounts, and his insistence on bargaining annoyed some collector-sellers (this practice was not common at the time) and meant he would sometimes miss out on what he wanted.

Still, step by step, the Folgers assembled as many copies as they could of Shakespeare’s “Folios.” These were the materials gathered together by the playwright’s friends John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623, at a time when 18 of his plays hadn’t even seen print and it was hardly a foregone conclusion that he would become one of literature’s immortals. The Folgers’ painstaking assembly of these 17th-century publications form the heart of the 82 Folios in the invaluable collection housed in DC today.

During a travel delay in WWI, when he had occasion to walk around Washington, Folger came to think that the Capitol Hill would be best for housing his collection. He then spent spent nine years, acting through his agent, gathering up the properties then existing here. A close ally in his effort was Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, subsequently worked for a Congressional resolution that secured the land for Folger's use.

Folger scrutinized every expense associated with the building, keeping costs down. He died not long after the cornerstone of the library was laid in 1930. After his death, Emily decided not to maintain it as a private space. The building was finished in 1931 and opened the following year.

Though this has the world’s primary collection of Shakespeareana, the library also reflect Folger's wider interests in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, as well as materials related to David Garrick (the English actor-theater manager who began popularizing Shakespeare again in the 1700s), butterflies and golf. Also here are such unusual items as a copy of Cicero owned by Henry VIII and a first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In the hall is a map of the London of Shakespeare’s time, with the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River. It was part of a district under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. Unlike much of the rest of the city then, it was not under the control of the Puritans, who, through the city’s mayor, sharply curtailed practices such as theater, bear-baiting and prostitution. As it happened, the Globe was the only theater of its time in the city without bear-baiting.

The Founders Room is filled with Elizabethan/Tudor furniture of dark wood. It contains figures associated with Shakespearean characters, as well as of famous actors who played Shakespearean roles, such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. Also in the room is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. 

This year, the Folger is not only acting as a magnet for those fascinated by Shakespeare in DC, but also reaching out across the country. An exhibit, "also reaching out across the country. An exhibit,"First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare," is visiting all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, before returning to the library in January 2017. Eighteen First Folios will be on display throughout the tour, with six displayed at any one time.

Just how influential the printing of Shakespeare’s plays have been to the development of literature is demonstrated by a quote on a door in the library by John Milton, who made his first appearance in print in Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare,which was included in the Second Shakespeare Folio of 1632.

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