- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

A trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library is a look at history and architecture, literature and art, sculpture and theater.

From the outside, the building even with its carved scenes from famous plays blends well with its surroundings on Capitol Hill. But step inside, and the whole family can get a taste of what 16th-century and 17th-century England was like.

Chances are, most family members at least those past about eighth grade will have read at least one of Shakespeare's plays or sonnets. The Bard's work remains important nearly 400 years after his death.

"He captures what is most true about us," library spokeswoman Garland Scott says. "He captures it in a way that is very insightful. The themes of his work endure even 400 years later, and he says it better than any of us can. People are always amazed at what kind of wordplay we owe to Shakespeare."

Inside the Elizabethan Theatre, the Tudor-style decor and ornate wood carvings can make visitors feel as if they are in the Globe, the theater where the Bard's works were often performed. Docents point out, however, that the intimate Washington theater should not be compared to the Globe, which sat 3,000 people.

The Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger is more like the courtyard of an English Renaissance inn, the docents explain. Such smaller venues served as playhouses for traveling groups of players. The setting serves not only as a historical example, but also as the site of Folger productions, workshops and lectures.

The library's Great Hall will impress young visitors with its high ceilings and feel of an Old World castle. The perimeter of the room is lined with the names of famous Shakespeare works and comedy and tragedy masks. The ceiling has carvings of Shakespeare's coat of arms and the Tudor rose.

The Great Hall is also the site for special exhibitions, where visitors can see parts of the Folger's huge collection of manuscripts, paintings and engravings.

The current exhibit is titled "A Shared Passion: Henry Clay Folger Jr., Emily Jordan Folger as Collectors." It chronicles the Folgers and their hobby of collecting all things Shakespeare, which resulted in the building and opening of the library in 1932.

The docents point out a spooky fact about the Folgers, one that is sure to titillate older grade-schoolers with a fascination for haunted houses. The ashes of the Folgers, both of whom died in the 1930s, are embedded in the walls of the Great Hall, so they are, in a way, still with their collection.

On display as part of "A Shared Passion" are several of the first folios, the earliest printed editions of Shakespeare's works. The plays and sonnets were not often printed during the playwright's lifetime, docent Ellen Andrus says. Famous works, such as "As You Like It" and "Macbeth," were not printed until after Shakespeare's death in 1616.

The oldest first folio on display dates to 1623. The Folger holds the largest collection of first folios; 79 of the 240 existing first folios are housed here, Ms. Scott says.

Most of the vast collection, including the rest of the Folger's first folios, is held underground in vaults. There is, however, a reading room where scholars can research not only Shakespeare, but also Renaissance art, science and politics.

The reading room is primarily used by actors and researchers who petition for a research card. Visitors on the daily tour can, however, take a peek at the room's ornate stained glass and the cradles that hold the antique books.

Another artifact young visitors will enjoy is a marble statue of Puck, the mischievous character from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The statue once stood in the library's garden, but nearly 70 years of weather and wear made the statue fragile, so it has been moved indoors. A cast aluminum Puck now resides in the garden and the refurbished marble Puck lives in the lobby just outside the Elizabethan Theatre.

"The skateboarders kept high-fiving him," Ms. Scott says. "His wrist couldn't take it any more."

The library recently has become more interactive with the "Seven Ages of Man" computer exhibit in the Shakespeare Gallery. The display takes passages from that speech in the play "As You Like It," illustrating it with illuminations and stained glass from the Elizabethan era.

Visitors can click on different times in a man's seven ages (such as infant or schoolboy) and see what life was like in Shakespeare's time. The computer program gives families rare access to some of the library's treasures, Ms. Scott says. Artifacts such as manuscripts and illuminations that are too delicate for the public to handle now can be seen, explained and enjoyed through the digitized images.

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