“Shakespeare taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper, and richer than the spaces of astronomy,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. A decade later, Amherst student Henry Clay Folger was profoundly affected by a lecture Emerson gave similarly extolling the Bard. Folger purchased an inexpensive set of Shakespeare’s plays and went on to amass the world’s largest (by far) collection of the Bard’s works, today housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. When the library opened in 1932 as a gift from the Folgers to the country, the collection comprised approximately 93,000 books, 50,000 prints and engravings, and thousands of manuscripts. Today, the collection has grown to include some 260,000 books, 116,000 of which are rare (pre-1801), 60,000 manuscripts, 250,000 playbills, and a wealth of paintings, costumes, musical instruments, and other materials. Sadly, Henry Folger did not live to see the library’s debut, having died suddenly in June 1930.
Most precious and best known of the Folger’s possessions are its 82 copies of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare. The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and it was published in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. As the only source for 18 of Shakespeare’s works, it’s likely that the world would have been without Macbeth, The Tempest, and other of the Bard’s masterpieces, had the First Folio not been printed. On permanent display in the Folger’s white-oak-paneled Tudor-ish Great Hall is one such First Folio, and right next to it, a touchscreen kiosk that allows one to flip digitally from page to page.
The building itself has a marble facade decorated with nine bas-relief scenes from Shakespeare’s plays; it is a striking example of Art Deco classicism. An Elizabethan garden on the east side of the building is planted with flowers and herbs of the period. Most remarkable here are eight sculptures, each depicting figures from a particular scene in a Shakespeare play. Each work is welded onto the top of a pedestal, on which are inscribed the play’s lines that inspired the sculptor, Greg Wyatt. Inquire about guided tours scheduled at 10 and 11am on every first and third Saturday from April to October. The garden is also a nice, quiet place to have a picnic.
The Great Hall is always open to the public and, besides its First Folio display, mounts rotating exhibits of other items from the permanent collection—Renaissance musical instruments to centuries-old playbills—that highlight a particular theme. Just off the hall is the Shakespeare Gallery, which offers an orientation video and multimedia close-up look at some of the Folgers’ treasures, as well as Shakespeare’s life and works. Plan on spending at least 30 minutes here.
At the end of the Great Hall is a theater designed to suggest the yard of an Elizabethan inn, where plays, concerts, readings, and Shakespeare-related events take place.