How the Soon-to-Reopen Folger Shakespeare Library Came to Be

A full 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio will go on view as the renovated Washington, D.C. institution makes its debut

William Shakespeare portrait on the title page
The title page of one of the Folger’s First Folios. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

Future titan of industry Henry Clay Folger Jr. lived the first part of his life in Dickensian poverty. Born in Brooklyn in 1857, he used essay contests to pay for his education at Amherst College, where he hand-washed his own laundry to save money and still could not afford coal for heat. And he was a deep admirer of William Shakespeare: He recalled delight in reading the Bard’s plays and poems “far into the night” while still at Amherst. A guest lecture by 75-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired Folger to search out the author’s 1864 “Remarks at the Celebration of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Shakespeare,” further enflaming his passion.

Still, little about his early life indicated Folger would amass the largest collection of Shakespeareana in the world: the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has been the envy of other collectors and a lifeline to generations of Shakespeare scholars. Of all the collection’s treasures, the central jewels are the First Folios—the earliest published collection of the plays, from 1623, of which only some 235 survive, in any form.

Now, as the Washington, D.C. library reopens after an ambitious renovation and expansion, it’s bringing its First Folios out of the vault and onto display. The gathering of 82 First Folios is a historic moment, and the library’s new exhibitions give visitors a variety of ways, both digital and analog, to know the Bard better. The renovated Folger is a triumph—one that preserves and honors the best of its past while incorporating breathtaking updates and innovations.

Folger was always a collector of sorts: He saved every book he ever read and from childhood assembled meticulous scrapbooks of theater tickets and other ephemera. But he’d never owned a rare book.

a black and white photograph of a bearded man in a suit standing for a portait
Henry Clay Folger Jr. circa 1910. The following year, Folger would become president of the Standard Oil Company of New York. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

A chance encounter changed all that. One day in 1889, Folger wandered into a New York City auction gallery and made an impulse purchase he could ill afford. For $107.50 (around $3,650 today), he bought a later, 1685 edition of Shakespeare’s plays, also known as a Fourth Folio. It included seven “new” plays, six of them by other authors. Folger asked if he could pay in installments. He brought the volume home to his wife, Emily, who shared his literary inclinations. They opened the binding and beheld the portrait of the author, pressed from a copper engraving of the only known portrait of Shakespeare. They turned the thick, luxurious rag paper pages, poring over the beloved words.

Henry Folger never recorded what called him into his first auction gallery on that decisive 1889 day. Little could he know that answering that mysterious call set him on the path to becoming the greatest Shakespeare collector in the world; nor that the young man who could barely afford $100 for a Fourth Folio would one day pay the highest price in the world for a book (not once but three times); nor that he would create the greatest Shakespeare library on the planet. In any case, in 1893, Folger bought his first copy of a First Folio and never looked back.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, no one—not even the playwright himself—believed that his writings would endure, nor that future generations would celebrate him as the greatest playwright-poet in the history of the English language. Plays of the period were meant to be performed, not read; they were entertainment, not literature. They were not written for all time, but for their own. Shakespeare had written five long poems, 154 sonnets and, depending on how one counts them, 37 plays. In his lifetime, only half his plays were published. The other half were in danger of extinction.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two loyal friends, fellow actors and Globe Theater shareholders John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected and published all of the plays in one mammoth volume, the First Folio. Formally called Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, the First Folio is the book that preserved Shakespeare’s work for posterity, elevating the Bard to the status he enjoys today. It was the first time in history the collected plays of a single author had been printed. Without Heminges and Condell, the plays that had not been previously published—including Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale—would have been lost.

No more than 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, a large run at the time, which signaled the editors’ confidence in the marketability of their friend’s plays. Over the last 400 years, around 500 of those copies have perished: Lost, devoured by insects or vermin, dismembered by time, or burned. Of the 235 or so surviving copies, fewer than 40 exist in coveted original condition. In October 2020, one such copy, once held at Mills College in California, sold for a record $9.9 million, making it one of the most valuable books in the world.

Henry Folger’s rise to great fortune took decades of toil. After graduating Amherst, he attended Columbia Law School at night so he could hold a full-time day job as a clerk at Charles Pratt and Company, an oil firm in Brooklyn, where he distinguished himself with an uncanny knack for facts, figures and efficiency. When that small enterprise merged with the Standard Oil Company, then the largest corporation in the world, Folger caught the eye of founder John D. Rockefeller. The richest man on the planet mentored Folger, adopting him as a trusted protégé. Their close relationship thrived on two shared passions: business and golf. Toward the end of his life, Rockefeller wrote to Folger: “I would not be outdone in appreciation of your companionship, and the delightful associations of the long years, and notably of these later years, as the ranks of the older associates are thinning out and we of the Old Guard draw closer together.”

Emily Jordan Folger, Henry’s wife and close partner in collecting, in 1931.
Emily Jordan Folger, Henry’s wife and close partner in collecting. Folger Shakespeare Library

By 1911, when Folger became president of Standard Oil Company of New York, he had already acquired an astonishing 40 First Folios before even hitting full stride as a collector. His wife, Emily, encouraged his obsession and became his canny collaborator. A fellow bardolator—one devoted to Shakespeare and his work—she had written a master’s thesis about the playwright while studying at Vassar College. Now, she advised him on all important purchases and cataloged the collection by recording bibliographic and provenance details on index cards by the thousands.

Over the next decades, Henry and Emily Folger purchased such massive quantities of Shakespeare material that they ran out of space in their modest rented home. Folger safeguarded the most precious treasures in bank vaults and crammed the rest into hundreds of crates that he secreted in storage units scattered all over New York City. As the couple branched out into collecting other rare books, plus paintings and sheet music, the storage question became more pressing still.

To preserve their collection in perpetuity, the Folgers decided to build a library in Washington, D.C. within sight of the U.S. Capitol and gift their collection to the American people and as a triumph of industry and philanthropy. When the Folger Memorial Shakespeare Library was dedicated on April 23, 1932 (the 368th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth), the Washington Post reported it was “attended by as distinguished an audience as ever gathered in Washington for any cultural reason.” Sadly, Henry Folger died in 1930 and never got to see the completed monument to his and Emily’s great passion.

By the early 2000s, it had become obvious that the library had outgrown its home and was in desperate need of more space for its ever-expanding acquisitions of books, documents, playbills, manuscripts, paintings, artifacts, tapestries, costumes, sheet music, maps, musical instruments and more.

But the historic status of the original structure made it impossible to break through the roof and rise vertically. Nor was it possible to expand the building’s footprint. That left one option: dig deep down below and build a new 12,000-square-foot wing, which includes 6,000 square feet of new exhibit space underneath the library and its lawn.

Much of the original structure remains intact. The huge reading room preserves its Elizabethan and Tudor carved woodwork, a balcony, and the dominant “Seven Ages of Man” stained-glass window; the jewel-box theater lives on as an homage to an Elizabethan playhouse; the secluded founder’s room that the Folgers designed for their own private enjoyment endures, and Henry and Emily Folger’s ashes are entombed in a niche in the old reading room.

a person sits in a reading room in a library
The Paster Reading Room at the Folger features a bust of Shakespeare based on his memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

The real action happens below street level, where an innovative new design of high ceilings, light-toned wood and LED lighting transforms underground rooms that ought to be dark and claustrophobic into airy, bright, spacious galleries. Stephen Kieran, principal architect behind the renovation, says it was a thrill to “unbury one of the nation’s great cultural assets, making the insight and wisdom of Shakespeare more physically and emotionally accessible. … We get to renovate both memory and architecture.”

In one such underground gallery, the Folger has resurrected its 82 First Folios (about one-third of all the copies in the world) from their hidden storage vaults and showcases them in what the library calls a “visible vault”—a gigantic wooden bookcase, with each Folio horizontal, spine facing out on a dedicated shelf, alongside a biography of each volume. No two copies of the First Folio are identical: Each one differs in size, binding, condition, completeness or provenance. Each tells its own story of romance, passion, obsession, neglect or discovery. Thanks to the new space and the innovative bookcase design, this is the first time a visitor can see all 82 together.

Indeed, this is the first time that so many First Folios have been assembled in one place in 400 years, when stacks of copies fresh off the press were piled high in Isaac Jaggard’s London printing shop.

Interactive light-up captions will answer questions about individual copies: Which was the most expensive one? The precious, so-called Vincent copy, acquired in 1903 for $48,732.50 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars—though its value is currently estimated at $8 million to $10 million). Which was the cheapest? The shabby Copy #64, also purchased in 1903 for $220 ($8,000 in today’s dollars).

a display showing Shakespeare Folios
Eighty First Folios are displayed in the Folger’s new visible vault, alongside two open copies in the table case. Visitors can explore selected Folios further via touchscreen—as a detective, or a storyteller, or a collector. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

Nearby stands a functional re-creation of a 17th-century hand-operated press that evokes the laborious process that went into typesetting and printing the First Folio. In an innovative and entirely new exhibit, visitors will be able to try their hand at digitally “setting” type: First you place it backward, and then, with the pull of a lever, you project the mirrored result onto a screen. A newly commissioned poem by former United States poet laureate Rita Dove, inscribed in marble along the pathway through the new West Garden, invites visitors to “clear [their] calendars” and enter this monument to Shakespeare.

Other new features include a Shakespeare map of the world that shows the beach where Viola was shipwrecked in Twelfth Night and the forest to which Rosalind was exiled in As You Like It.

What would Henry Folger say today, knowing that his reinvented library has flung open to the world the doors to his treasures? Quoting Cardinal Wolsey in The Life of King Henry the Eighth, Folger would likely speak the words he ordered carved into stone above an entrance to his library: “I shower a welcome on ye; Welcome all.”

No Bard Feelings

When two of Shakespeare’s friends compiled the first folio, a few plays didn’t make the cut
By Sonja Anderson

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

An undated illustration of Pericles and his daughter, Marina.
An undated illustration of Pericles and his daughter, Marina. Bridgeman Images

Pericles is one of the least-performed plays in Shakespeare’s canon. Some scholars believe Shakespeare co-wrote the play with fellow playwright George Wilkins, though Wilkins was never credited. The play’s title character spends the first two acts trying to win the hands of princesses through competitions devised by their kingly fathers, and even saves a community from famine. Once married, Pericles comes to believe his new wife has died in childbirth at sea and casts her coffin overboard—even though she’s still alive! How will they reunite?

The Two Noble Kinsmen

An 1848 illustration of The Two Noble Kinsmen
An 1848 illustration of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Alamy

This collaboration between Shakespeare and playwright John Fletcher borrows plotlines from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” and follows cousins Palamon and Arcite of Thebes. Imprisoned by the Duke of Athens, the cousins espy the beautiful Emilia from their cell—and each man falls immediately in love. When Arcite is freed, he disguises himself and becomes Emilia’s servant. Thus disguised, he sets out to duel with Palamon, in a tournament organized by the Duke of Athens. Comedy and, of course, mistaken identity ensue.


Don Quixote meets Cardenio in an 18th-century engraving.
Don Quixote meets Cardenio in an 18th-century engraving. The British Museum
Attributed to Shakespeare in collaboration with John Fletcher, this “lost” play was performed by the King’s Men acting company during its 1612-13 season. It was never printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and no manuscript survives. Scholars have deduced from the title that the work was likely based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, first published in English in 1612. Early in that novel, the protagonist meets a hermit named Cardenio who—in a tragicomic episode tailor-made for Shakespeare—has withdrawn to the Spanish hills after his friend stole his girlfriend.

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