When Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore visits the Lincoln Memorial and reads the martyred president’s second inaugural address, cut into Indiana limestone, “I can hear Shakespeare in the grammar, in the pauses, in the word choices.”
At Georgetown Media Group’s Nov. 14 Cultural Leadership Breakfast, held at 1310 Kitchen & Bar, Witmore explained why the library belonged in Washington and on Capitol Hill, near the museums and monuments on the National Mall.
For one thing, the Folger is adjacent to the Library of Congress. For another, many of the plays, notably the histories, are concerned with matters of law, justice and government. And, for centuries, Shakespeare’s language has shaped how American English is written and spoken (in addition to Lincoln’s address, Witmore cited orations by Frederick Douglass).
Finally, said Witmore, Henry and Emily Folger decided in the 1920s to locate the world’s largest dedicated collection of Shakespeareana in the nation’s capital “on the conviction that Washington, D.C., will become a city of culture and learning.”
The Folger’s seventh director went on to point out two drawbacks of Paul Cret’s 1932 design. As at the Lincoln Memorial, “you have to walk up a lot of steps.” Also, the large windows in the library’s Tudor-style Great Hall make the space unsuitable for exhibitions of light-sensitive materials.
To remedy these issues, and better tie together “the pieces of our programming” — research, exhibitions, education, public events, concerts and theater — the Folger will close early next year for 18 months to two years, while continuing to offer programs in other venues.
Folger Theatre, currently presenting “Amadeus,” will conclude its season with “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” from Jan. 14 to March 1, on its home stage, the first permanent Shakespeare theater built in North America. Period-music ensemble Folger Consort has already begun performing in St. Mark’s Church on A Street SE.
The $50-million “Wonder of Will” capital campaign will “create a front door that says to everyone, ‘You should come in here,’” Witmore said, reached through “ascending gardens.” Some 5,000 square feet of new public galleries will make it possible to convert the Great Hall into a gathering space with a café. In addition, the underground rare-book vault will be renovated, requiring the entire collection to leave the building, with some books and artifacts loaned to other institutions.
The expansion — a “five-act drama” including the “intermission,” Witmore’s term for the closure — has been designed by architecture firm Kieran Timberlake and landscape architecture firm Olin.
At the heart of the Folger’s collection, which includes such items as Queen Elizabeth’s love letters to the Earl of Essex, Paul Robeson’s working script of “Othello” and Johnny Cash’s cigar-box set of Shakespeare, are 82 copies of the 1623 First Folio, the posthumous compilation which preserved many plays that otherwise would have been lost. After the expansion, all 82 — more than exist in all of Great Britain — will be displayed together for the first time.
Digital initiatives that Witmore launched since joining the Folger in 2011, leaving a University of Wisconsin professorship, are also proceeding. The Folger editions of Shakespeare are already freely accessible online. The current challenge, according to Witmore, is to create “reliable digital pegs” that will enable readers to “use the text as a portal.” He gave the example of pointing to the phrase “bare bodkin” and having an image of an Elizabethan dagger pop up.
During the Q&A, an attendee asked Witmore what Shakespeare play he would assign the Trump administration. He suggested two: “King Lear” for its portrayal of loyalty and “The Tempest” for its treatment of empathy, mentioning the passage when the spirit Ariel tells Prospero that Ariel’s heart would break, “if I were human.”