“Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”
—Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2
William Shakespeare is dead. This year, on April 23, 400 years will have passed since his death. At the age of 52, Shakespeare left behind a wife, two daughters, 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and countless poems. He wrote plays for royalty, and for commoners alike. His characters, stories, and dialogues are still used in conversation. He even invented words like “bedroom” and “jaded” and “eyeball.”
But how exactly have his works survived? Why is it that we are so readily familiar with Shakespearean pieces composed four centuries ago, but can scarcely remember any other writer from that period? Why do we immediately think of Romeo & Juliet when we see two lovers talking at a window? Is Shakespeare immortal and ever-relevant, or is he just screwing with us from beyond the grave? The answers, as per usual, are found in the library.
Just behind the east side of the Library of Congress, in the shadow of the Capitol and Supreme Court, there’s a long, white marble building that blends carefully into the scenic backdrop of Capitol Hill. Upon closer examination, however, looking in the right light, the building differs from the Senate offices up the block. Shakespeare quotes adorn the crenelations and trim, where the roof meets the walls. Bas-reliefs of Shakespeare characters are carved into the stones. Inside this austere marble tomb, you will find a 260-seat Elizabethan-style theater, a grand hall with regularly changing exhibits, and one of the most beautifully built reading rooms in the country. Everything there owes thanks to Henry and Emily Folger.
A career in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil gave the Folgers the means to start amassing art. This was not an uncommon thing at the time– on your next visit to the National Gallery of Art, try to count how many times you see the name “Andrew Carnegie” neatly printed beneath the paintings. At the turn of the last century, the wealthy elite were more concerned with leaving their name on a library or gallery, rather than hoard valuables. It’s a stark contrast to the wealthy elite of today.
Around the 1880’s, Henry Clay Folger was inspired by the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was particularly moved by one quote:
“England’s genius filled all measure
Of heart and soul, of strength and pleasure,
Gave to mind its emperor
And life was larger than before;
And centuries brood, nor can attain
The sense and bound of Shakspeare’s brain.
The men who lived with him became
Poets, for the air was fame.”
Folger went headfirst into the works of Shakespeare shortly thereafter. Folger‘s first rare book purchase was a copy of the Fourth Folio, the most complete volume of plays, published seventy years after Shakespeare’s death. Folger and his wife later amassed a collection of over eighty First Folios.
Their collection continued to grow, until, in the 1920’s, they finally reached a point where building a library made sense. They purchased the land, which was comprised largely of rowhouses and townhomes, worked out deals with the tenants, razed the buildings, and began work with Paul Philippe Cret on the design and construction of the Folger Library. Cret was already hard at work on a ton of projects, several of which are located here in the District. The Folger Library opened shortly after Henry’s death in 1932. While Henry would acquire massive stacks of books, Emily developed a card catalogue, with meticulous details for each book. All of these books are part of the research Library, which means they can be read and studied by anyone who wishes. All you have to do is walk in, and apply for a library card.
As their library is architecturally a bit of an odd duck in the layout of Capitol Hill, so is the collection inside it. While Henry and Emily worked to find rare and out-of-print volumes, their collection is most famous for collecting “imperfect” volumes, complete with marks, nicks, and scribblings in the margins. This was not to save money. They wanted to build a collection of books that were clearly read by people, and were part of individuals’ lives. In a way, they were not just preserving the works of Shakespeare, but preserving the memory of those who first read them.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is a treasure chest of rare volumes, most of which survive thanks to the work Emily and Henry put into preserving them. Also preserved in the building is the spirit of Shakespeare’s mission of providing for the people; while the library and reading room are mostly for academic research, the rest of the building is free, and open to the public.
His works have waited four centuries for your visit. They’re still waiting.