The Folger library is home to 82 first folios – one third of all the surviving copies* and the largest single collection in the world. So naturally I made a beeline there on my first day in Washington…
A little history – the Folger library was gift of Henry Clay Folger, nephew of the coffee magnate, and colleague of Rockefeller, he made his fortune in oil. While a student at Amherst College he developed an interest in Shakespeare and began a lifelong collecting obsession – not just first folios, but small objets d’art and ephemera such as playbills fell under his possessive eye. Eventually, during World War One, he and his wife decided it was time to house his possessions, buying up some prime Washington real estate and doing a deal with Congress to keep his plot of land (otherwise surrounded by the Congress Library) in exchange for leaving his collections to the nation**.
Having been persuaded away from constructing a full thatched half-timbered building the size of a third of a city block (and in damp, hot and freezing Washington too – the mind boggles at the likely upkeep. Assuming it didn’t burn down instead.), the collection of first folios, other rare books and manuscripts, and scholarly works is housed in what is from the outside a fairly typical Washington stone building – albeit one with very fine Shakespearean friezes. Inside, the Jacobean influences are much stronger, giving a very odd feeling of incongruence.
If you go at the right time of day, a knowledgeable docent will give you a guided tour of the highlights – the Founders’ Room, with stained glass windows of key Shakespearean characters; the wood-panelled Great Hall, late mediaeval interior décor done on an American scale; and the library, closed except to scholars, but you can take a peek through a glass door at the stained glass window of the Seven Ages of Man and see the scholars going about their research like catching a glimpse of a retiring animal at the zoo.
The docent made a pretty good case for the concentration of First Folios too – since there are differences between them ***, being able to compare them can provide valuable insights into how they were performed, and the language of the day. Also, the marginalia (such as the staging information in the St Omer first folio) provide valuable additional information for the scholar****. So this made me feel somewhat less light-fingered than I might have otherwise. Plus, you know, any attempt to “liberate” a copy in the name of national pride***** would have met an early and serious setback in the fact that not a single one of them is on display (only a digital copy). To be fair, the Folger is really a serious scholarly library rather than a touristy location.
The part for visitors is the Theatre – sadly not showing anything while I was in town but now (according to a friend) hosting a great production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead******. It’s an odd duck – based (very loosely, I’d say) on the plans for the Globe, but indoors, without a thrust stage and much more comfortable (and much fewer) seats that the Globe’s wooden benches. It is very strange seeing the ornate woodwork of the Globe in a more commonplace theatre setting – odder still having a ceiling (complete with random unicorn)… The loos were also lovely – between them and the toilets in Temple Hall there might be an interesting monograph in the offing on lavatorial stylings – and the shop was a hoot. As well as copies of the plays and serious books, they had graphic novels, fridge magnets, and (a must-have purchase) Shakespeare Cats, which is bits of Shakespeare, but with illustrated with cats.
All-in-all, it’s a fascinating place, with an interesting history.
* Approximately – the exact fraction varies when they find new ones (such as the one in St Omer), and others are stolen…
** Presumably grateful, possibly also perplexed.
*** The vagaries of not-so-modern printing.
****And an opportunity. Seriously, someone needs to stage this.
***** Or just personal avarice.
****** Just my luck.