By Gail Kern Paster

These 1927 portraits of Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, hang in the Old Reading Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
A few years ago, Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, visited the Folger to invite the library to participate in a Shakespeare in Washington festival. The festival would be designed to establish the nation’s capital as a great performing arts destination, on a par with New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. “The Folger,” he told me, would be “the intellectual heart of the enterprise.”

Kaiser publicly announced plans for the ambitious, city-wide festival onstage at the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre. The festival began in January 2007 and will run through June. With Kaiser’s persuasive powers and under festival curator Michael Kahn’s forceful leadership, more than 60 cultural organizations from all over the country will offer many exhibitions and more than 500 performances of plays, operas, concerts and ballets—works either by Shakespeare or inspired by his great creative example. (For more details about the festival, go to

While the American love affair with Shakespeare has many points of origin, I would argue that Washington’s special link with the poet is the direct result of the decision by Henry Clay Folger ’32 and his wife, Emily, to build their library two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. In building the library, the Folgers contributed greatly to a city that they knew would grow in cultural significance from a sleepy provincial town to an international capital. The Folger has fed the capital’s love for Shakespeare with an ambitious set of cultural and educational programs that we began in the 1970s under a strong mandate from the Amherst Board of Trustees. For the Shakespeare in Washington festival, the library has assumed a leadership role, telling the story of Shakespeare in America during a variety of events and programs to be held throughout the spring (see “From the Folger,” Summer/Fall 2006).

I consider it highly appropriate that Shakespeare in Washington coincides with the Folger’s 75th anniversary in April. By honoring Shakespeare, it seems to me that Washington is also honoring the Folger as Shakespeare’s home in America.

Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened in 1932 with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Paintings: Frank O. Salisbury, oil on canvas