- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2011

WASHINGTON — In the hushed, dimly lit theater of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a young fair-haired girl stepped to the microphone Sunday to recite the heartfelt lines of Juliet, a woman synonymous with tragic, forbidden love.

Though the words were centuries old, the applause at the library’s 446th birthday celebration for William Shakespeare showed that the works of the English author are as popular today as they were in the Elizabethan era.

The Folger has hosted the birthday party for nearly 20 years, frequently amid Washington’s unpredictable spring weather. But this year, the sunny skies and mild temperatures brought hundreds to the library, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“It’s because it’s all alive,” Jack Cox, a former Folger ambassador and birthday volunteer, said about the event’s popularity. Shakespeare “is not just dead, dried prose on a page.”

Shakespeare — married to Anne Hathaway and the father of three children, including one of who died young — spent most of his life in the world of London theater. Before dying April 23, 1616 — his 54th birthday — Shakespeare had authored dozens of plays and poems that continue to be printed, deconstructed and produced on stages around the world.

Jester and entertainer Nick Newlin juggles for visitors at Shakespeare's birthday celebration. (Drew Angerer/The Washington Times)
Jester and entertainer Nick Newlin juggles for visitors at Shakespeare’s birthday celebration. ... more >

On Sunday, children engaged in brooch and collar making and donned full dresses and feathered caps from racks of costumes.

Outside the theater, actors parried with wooden staffs to show guests the intricate dances that are Shakespeare’s iconic fight scenes.

Katie Kirk, the young performer who recited the Juliet monologue in the “spontaneous Shakespeare” open mic session, is a student at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda and frequent participant in a Shakespeare theater company summer camp.

“I like the rhythm of it,” she said of the author’s works. “The use of rhythm tells a lot about the characters and the emotions of the scene.”

Though the author’s birthday was the focus of the day’s celebration, it was also a special day for library lovers. The Folger’s Old Reading Room, reserved for researchers all but one day every year, was open to anyone who wanted a glimpse at the soaring ceiling and handsome wood paneling of the cavernous hall.

A large oil painting overlooks the northern side of the room, depicting the scene of Juliet waking just before she sees her betrothed and her lover dead in “Romeo and Juliet.” To the east is a massive stained glass window with the seven ages of man from “As You Like It.”

Though modern books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias were on display for the birthday, underneath the library are 250,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts and hundreds of oil paintings available by special request, said Sarah Rosenbaum, a volunteer docent.

And while the original donation for the room consisted mainly of Shakespearean works, Ms. Rosenbaum said, today the collection emphasizes “the whole world he lived in.”