Shakespeare: A New Job for a Dramaturg

The Folger  Shakespeare Library is a unique institution, led by a board of directors somehow governed or sponsored by Amherst College.  I am not sure of the precise relationship.  The Folger is on Capitol Hill; I have attended only a few shows in its Elizabethan theater, and remember the Shakespeare festival for young students, when my daughter participated.  I also know that they have lectures, musical programs, and poetry programs and, of course, a library.  But I never really explored it until yesterday.

I was lucky to get to the Folger just as the 11 a.m. tour was beginning, and as there were only two other men on the tour, it was quite relaxed under the auspices of Wilma Baily, who told me she had been docenting there for eight years, and who did a very good job.

There is one copy of the First Folio on display in the great hall, under glass of course.  Apparently, there were about 700 printed and about 200 are known to exist today.  79 of them are owned by the Folger.  The folio was the first book of plays printed in folio form (a large page folded in two); there had been other books of course, but folios were used for “good literature” and before Shakespeare, plays were not considered good enough for folio treatment.  Most of Shakespeare’s plays are in the folios, but not his poetry.  I learned other things, as well.  I learned that, in the 17th century, you went to the printers to purchase the folios, and that you then brought them to a bookbinder for binding.  Therefore, although the folios may be identical, their bindings vary greatly.

There is also some statuary at the Folger.  A limestone Puck (“Midsummer Night’s Dream”) stands in the lobby, nine frescoes, based on the plays, are on the East Capitol Street front of the builidng, and 8 statues, also based on the plays, are located in the Elizabethan garden to the east of the building.  These statues are by Greg Wyatt.

But where does the dramaturg come in?  There is a special exhibit in the great hall, entitled “Arms and Armor in Shakespeare”, which was curated by a professor from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but could have been put together by a dramaturg.  The format was simple.  Separate exhibits based on various of the plays which have military characters, showing forms of armor that would have been used in the earliest productions (as opposed to examples of historical items from the times the plays were set), along with other artifacts, and with contemporary and earlier books from the library showing a number of things:  costumes, royal family habits, parades and other ritual events, heraldic information, knighthood, and historical events.

For example, the “Hamlet” display included a 17th century English siege helmet, The Book of Colloquies Concerning the Arte of Shooting from 1588, a handwritten and beautifully illustrated German book from 1607 on firearms; an Italian gunner’s stiletto from the 17th century, a Dutch print, a German shield, a large sword from the guards of Henri III of France, a 16th century English breastplate, and finally an English book on the principals of military arts.

Similar exhibits were built around Othello, Julius Caesar and the histories.  The exhibit closes this weekend.

The first theatrical production opens in October.  Henry IV Part 1, featuring Rick Foucheaux in the title role.

The building, to me a rather ugly marble rectangle of a structure, sits only a block east of the Capitol on East Capitol Street.  The story goes that the Folgers (more to come) wanted a Tudor building, and were discouraged by the architect (working in conjunction with the architect of the Library of Congress and the architect of the Supreme Court building) and they wound up with Georgian marble.  But the inside is dark wood and much more Tudor-ish.

Henry Clay Folger, an Amherst graduate, was, among other things, the president of Standard Oil, and his wife had been interested in Shakespeare since her days at Vassar.  They became great collectors of Shakespearian material, winding up with about 1/3 of the existing copies of the First Folios of Shakespearian plays.

They built the library for the benefit of the public.  Construction began in 1930 and ended in 1932.  Folger died before construction was completed; his wife lived on.

There is a beautiful research library which is the centerpiece of the building  We were told that it is used mainly by post-doctorate researchers or other individuals who are involved in specific projects.  It is certainly not available for the general public.  One day a year, on the Sunday before Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the reading room is open to the general public, in connection with a mini-festival held at the library.  On other days, you can look into the library though glass doors leading from the great hall. One of the things that you glimpse is a large wooden chair that once belonged to English Shakespearian actor David Garrick.

There is also the theater, with a stage loosely based on the stage of the Globe Theatre in London, and with the remainder of the theater based on Elizabethan theaters in general.  And there is the “Founder’s Room”, which is only open for the 11 a.m. tour.  The centerpiece of this room is an Elizabethan table (one of at least three Elizabethan pieces, each of which has been repaired and had some parts replaced).  There are Folger family momentos, and shelves of books donated by a former ambassador to England, and several oil paintings.  The best known of these paintings is a painting (precise artist unknown) supposedly of Shakespeare and which was for a long time considered the best likeness of Shakespeare.  It has since been determined by most scholars, although there is still some dispute, that it was not of Shakespeare after all.  It has been the subject of much inquiry and scholarship.

There is also a contemporary portrait of Queen Elizabeth by George Gower.  It is called the “sieve” portrait because Elizabeth is holding a sieve, which is apparently an artifice supposedly held by a Roman vestal virgin to demonstrate her virginity (don’t ask how).  Elizabeth selected this prop, as the painting was made at a time when it was thought by many that she needed a husband and progeny, and she wanted to show that she needed none of that.


One thought on “Shakespeare: A New Job for a Dramaturg

  1. Shakespeare’s First Folio was an incredibly important publication, but it was not the first book of plays published in folio format. In 1616 Ben Jonson’s plays were published in folio under the title of “Works.” It is thought by many that Jonson’s example spurred Heminges and Condell to produce an equivalent collection of plays by Shakespeare.


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