The Pen's Excellencie: Folger Shakespeare Library

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on July 29, 2002

"The ashes of Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily, assemblers of the world's preeminent collection of material devoted to William Shakespeare and his era, rest in a small alcove of the great library they established in Washington, D.C. The stone marker nearby bears this inscription: 'To the glory of William Shakespeare, and the greater glory of God.' A private joke among staff members runs 'God gets the greater glory, but Shakespeare gets top billing.'" - Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books We can only be thankful that Emily Folger, wife of Standard Oil executive Henry Clay Folger, wrote her master's thesis on "The True Text of Shakespeare." Her interest in comparing Shakespearean texts combined with her husband Henry's passion for the Bard ultimately led to the creation of the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, not to mention a stupendous collection of 16th-19th century books and manuscripts.

In a sad coincidence, Henry Folger died a mere three days after the cornerstone for his library was laid in 1930. He and his wife had after much consideration decided to build the library in Washington as "a gift to the American people." Emily faithfully carried out their plan after Henry's death.

Located only a few blocks from the Library of Congress, the Folger is actually administered by the Trustees of Amherst College, Henry Folger's alma mater. Folger had wanted the library to resemble a Tudor mansion but was overuled by the local Planning Commission, so he settled on a Greek Revival exterior with Art Deco touches.

The restrained exterior gives little hint of the magnificent Tudor interior, with its main room a replica of an Elizabethan great hall, with dark oak panelling from tiled floor to elaborately plastered ceiling. But is it what is ranged around the room in the glass cases that evokes true astonishment.

The exhibit on display during my last visit was "The Pen's Excellencie: Treasures from the Manuscript Collection." While the common theme was a connection with Shakespeare, the manuscripts were surprisingly varied. One case devoted to Mark Twain's essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" held his characteristically carefully-edited manuscript. James Boswell's commonplace book, with the notes that he had transcribed as a precocious ten year old, was in another. The regally sprawling signatures of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth graced several documents. I drifted from case to case, dreamily: John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot… even A.A. Milne. Most delightful to me, the manuscript of Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," long a favorite.

The docent-led weekend tours are wonderfully informative, not to mention that they offer a peep at the private Reading Room and entry to Emily Folger's personal study, which contains a famous painting of Elizabeth I. It struck me that the entire library, masonry to manuscripts, was one incomparable literary shrine. Anyone with even an ember of literary passion should visit the Folger at least once in a lifetime.

Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, District of Columbia, 20003
(202) 675–0333

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