WASHINGTON — If William Shakespeare were to come back to life and resurface here, he would feel very much at home in the neoclassic white marble building across from the Library of Congress.
Shakespeare would be 426 years old.
Nine large bas-reliefs by sculptor John Gregory depict scenes from Shakespeare's plays on the exterior of the imposing structure. In a nearby garden, carved on the base of Brenda Putnam's statue of Puck, is the line from "A Midsummer Night's Dream": "Lord, what fooles these mortals be!"
Inside the building, the Folger Shakespeare Library, is the world's largest collection of plays and poetry by William Shakespeare, as well as America's pre-eminent collection of English-language publications from the 15th through 18th centuries. Holdings include two-thirds of all known titles published in England or in English before 1640.
In addition, the library houses a virtual history of Shakespeare productions during the past four centuries, thanks to its vast collection of playbills, promptbooks, paintings, costumes, correspondence, critical reviews, manuscripts, books and films.
Scholars throughout the world come here to do serious research on Shakespeare, his poetry, his plays, his times, the origins and influence of the Elizabethan Age, the Renaissance in general, and the literature, economics and politics of 15th-through-18th-Century Europe.
Researchers pore over rare books and manuscripts dating from the 15th Century in the stunning Elizabethan Reading Room. Visitors with no connection to academia come to see the treasures on exhibit in the 130-foot-long Great Hall, with its oak-paneled walls and hand-carved Elizabethan doorways, a re-creation of a Tudor gallery.
There are midday poetry readings. The Folger Consort, an Elizabethan music ensemble, performs frequently. There are seminars, symposiums and lectures year-round.
Here, too, is a reproduction of a theater typical of Shakespeare's day, modeled after an inn with balconies. Artistic director Michael Kahn's 1990-91 season opens Sept. 11 in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre with "Richard III," starring Stacy Keach in the title role of the "murderous charmer who schemes and seduces his way to the English throne."
The best flavor of the Elizabethan Age to be found anywhere in America is at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
It was a lecture on Shakespeare by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Amherst College in 1879 that triggered Henry Clay Folger's interest in the playwright.
Folger was a descendant of Peter Folger, a Martha's Vineyard, Mass., schoolmaster who emigrated from England in 1635. Peter Folger's daughter, Abiah, was Benjamin Franklin's mother.
After he graduated from Amherst (the same year he heard Emerson's lecture), Folger was hired as a clerk by Standard Oil Company of New York, where he rose through the ranks to become president. His wife, Emily Jordan, wrote a master's thesis at Vassar based on her study of various editions of Shakespeare's plays published from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Both were hooked on the Bard for 60 years and devoted all of their spare time to collecting related material. That devotion culminated in their decision to build the library.
Folger died two weeks after the cornerstone was laid. President Herbert Hoover dedicated the library on Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, in 1932. Folger's wife was involved in its financial support and operation until her death in 1936.
The Folgers had no children. Their fortune was spent on the Shakespeare collection, the library and the endowment to operate it. The Folgers left the library in care of the trustees of Amherst College. Their ashes are in the Elizabethan Reading Room.
"There are things here that scholars come from England to see because they cannot be found in Shakespeare's homeland," said Ann Greer, library public affairs coordinator, as she opened the 1568 personal Bible of Queen Elizabeth I, a volume bound in its original red velvet.
She turned the pages of a 1502 Latin book that belonged to Henry VIII. As a student, he scrawled in large, bold hand: "Thys boke is myne. Prince Henry." Greer also showed a letter written by Queen Elizabeth to Henry IV of France in 1595.
Among the library's remarkable treasures are 79 copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, published in London in 1623 by two of his fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, seven years after the playwright's death. The British Library has the next largest collection of the First Folio--five copies. There were 1,000 printed; 240 are known to exist.
The title page of the First Folio reads: "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies" and contains the best-known portrait of the author, one of only two authentic likenesses known to exist.