Shakespeare was a guy from the wrong side of the pond, but the American people still fell for him—hard. Even more improbable: the extent to which Amherst has been part of the long romance.

By Eric Goldscheider; Images courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

Reading Room in Folger Library
Old Reading Room, Folger Shakespeare Library

The Puritans who sailed west from England in the early part of the 17th century had a thing against theater. This was around the same time that William Shakespeare was creating perhaps the most durable body of work in English letters, but the Puritans wanted no part. Drama, in their estimation, like dance and games of chance, was a frivolous pursuit that distracted from strict fealty to moral precepts. In 1752, a company of actors (a touring group called the London Company, which later changed its name to the Old American Company) staged the first known professional Shakespeare production in the New World. The play was The Merchant of Venice; it got as far north as New York and as far south as Jamaica. Even then, it wouldn’t have been welcome in Boston.

Fifty years later, a new republic possessed by the frontier spirit embraced the Bard with a vengeance. Shakespeare’s plays became standards in a circuit of theaters up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States and in the expanding hinterlands. The plays became a staple diversion in mining camps during the California gold rush. Cockeyed derivations of Shakespeare’s work even showed up in the antics of riverboat hustlers in Huckleberry Finn. Americans acquired such a strong taste for Shakespeare that by the end of the 19th century the U.S. verily claimed him as one of its own.

In the story of this love affair, Amherst occupies a central role: In 1930, Standard Oil Co. President Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, broke ground on a library in Washington, D.C., to house the world’s most significant collection of Shakespeareiana, which they’d spent decades amassing. Upon his death, Folger effectively handed the library keys to the Trustees of Amherst College, giving Amherst, from that day on, an unusual influence over scholarly and popular understanding of the Bard.

Today, along with monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s capital has a living shrine to a British writer who dramatized the travails of kings and queens. The Folger Shakespeare Library holds a pride of place in Washington, D.C., flanked on two sides by the Library of Congress and just up the street from the Supreme Court. When the Folger’s director, Gail Kern Paster, looks out her office window, her gaze falls upon the Capitol dome just a block away.

Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879
Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879

The Shakespeare library is a relatively late addition to the American pantheon, dedicated 75 years ago, in 1932. It is the final expression of Henry and Emily Folger’s zeal to collect and consolidate the world’s largest collection of all things Shakespeare—rare books, commentary, artwork and much more, often purchased from the private holdings of British gentry. The collection includes what is by far the largest single agglomeration of First Folios, the earliest compendiums of the Bard’s plays. Quietly, Henry and Emily Folger also acquired the real estate parcels for a grand edifice to include an Elizabethan theater, a “Great Hall” and a majestically ornate reading room. The Folgers conceived the project as a gift to the American people.

In the summer of 1930, according to Folger reference librarian Georgiana Ziegler, Henry Folger died unexpectedly, and the Amherst College trustees, picking up The New York Times, were surprised to read that he had charged them with managing his unparalleled collection, which at the time was squirreled away in Standard Oil warehouses around the country. Ground had just been broken on the library. (Emily Folger, who lived another six years, would play an active role in overseeing the building’s construction.) The college accepted Folger’s fiduciary challenge.

So it came to pass that one of the great repositories of Renaissance culture would be housed in Washington, D.C., and that the endowment would be administered some 400 miles away, at a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.

Why did Henry Folger put such trust in Amherst? Pastor Samuel Cadman, speaking at Folger’s funeral service in Brooklyn, N.Y., provided a clue:

Mr. Folger had a passion for the spiritual culture of life. When he was a boy, evangelical religion was crashing down in ruins through sheer stupidity. ... It was therefore a great boon for him when on New England’s fragrant hills, nurtured by his Alma Mater, Amherst, which he regarded with reverent affection, he found what he had previously desired and longed for from the time of his boyhood, the guiding light that does not fail.

The passage is quoted in Michael Bristol’s 1990 book, Shakespeare’s America, America’s Shakespeare. Folger came to Amherst as a scholarship student from a middle-class family. He arrived at around the same time that Shakespeare was becoming part of the curriculum in American colleges. Folger, an avid golfer and music aficionado, sang in the glee club at Amherst. His roommate, with whom he also attended high school in Brooklyn, was Charles Millard Pratt, Class of 1879. Pratt’s father, an early oil tycoon who joined forces with John D. Rockefeller, helped to underwrite Folger’s education. The Pratts hired Folger upon graduation, opening the way into a world of oil monopolies and great wealth. (Bristol says that Folger, toward the end of his career, was called on to forestall the breakup of Rockefeller’s monopolistic empire.)

Folger’s fascination with Shakespeare likely began at Amherst when he attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s writings bespeak a romanticized—and influential—view of the Bard’s work as a foundational pillar of American democracy. According to Thomas Cartelli, an English professor at Muhlenberg College, Emerson, who famously proclaimed Shakespeare the “father of the man in America,” traced essential qualities of the American spirit to the Elizabethan milieu that spawned his body of work. Cartelli argues that Emerson’s claim has little basis in fact. “It’s not good history,” Cartelli says. “There’s nothing solid there.” But Emerson’s view appealed to a popular idea that the United States was in danger of being polluted—even overrun—by new arrivals, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe. As Cartelli sees it, to claim Shakespeare as a quasi-Founding Father was to assert a primacy of English culture.

In the 19th century, Shakespearean drama (and the satires and parodies it inspired) was wildly popular fodder for entertainment in the United States. Minstrel shows, the blatantly racist productions performed in playhouses across the country, were replete with parodies of Shakespeare’s themes, characters and verse. (T.D. Rice, for example, a white actor performing in blackface who made the slave character “Jim Crow” his trademark, produced an 1844 parody of Othello in which the main character spoke with a thick plantation accent.) McGuffey Readers, the widely used texts for American school children, often included extracts from Shakespeare. Alexis de Tocqueville, touring America in the 1830s, noted that if a frontier cabin had two books in it, they would be the King James Bible and a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s cadences and imagery were readily accessible across social class: Churchgoers heard similar use of language in sermons. Political speechifying (extending to the Lincoln-Douglas debates) adhered to a like style of oratory. In 1849, New York City played host to competing productions of Macbeth. One featured the cerebral British actor William Macready, the other the self-consciously rough and ready Edwin Forrest, claiming the mantle of robust Americanism. The rival productions sparked the Astor Place riot, in which at least 22 people died when Forrest supporters descended on Macready’s theater to stop the show.

The Folger Library explores this history in a new radio documentary and companion Website ( that marks the 75th anniversary of the library’s dedication. Richard Paul, a satirist and award-winning radio producer, made the three-part series, which is narrated by Law & Order’s Sam Waterston. Paul sees 19th-century Shakespeare productions as social equalizers, like NFL football games, which bring together the very rich and the working class to enjoy the same spectacle at the same time.

But as class distinctions in the Gilded Age ossified, new theaters appeared with ticket prices that prevented most people from attending. “The rich said: You know what? We don’t want to be bothered with the chair-throwing and the yelling and the prostitutes in the balcony, and we’d like to be away from black people, thank you very much,” Paul says.

Portrait of Emily Folger
Emily Jordan Folger

Emily and Henry Folger met through Lily Pratt, sister of Henry Folger’s Amherst roommate. The couple married in 1885. In 1889 Henry bought his first rare book, a copy of the Fourth Folio (1685) of Shakespeare’s plays. The Folgers never had children; a shared affinity for Shakespeareiana was the underpinning of their lifelong bond. Emily Folger earned a master’s degree from Vassar College during the marriage, writing a thesis on the importance of the First Folios in understanding Shakespeare’s true intent. Werner Gundersheimer ’59, the Folger Library’s former director, believes that when Henry Folger decided to build the library, he saw it as “a bond between the Anglo-American heritage of England and the United States.” Folger’s exact motives in acquiring the collection, and in creating the library, remain elusive: “It’s really hard to get a sense of his own inner conversation,” says Paster, the library’s current director. “He’s like Hamlet: There’s a mystery in there that we really can’t pluck the heart out of.”

In the seven and a half decades since the library’s dedication, Amherst has had a guiding hand in transforming the Folger into the world’s center of gravity for Shakespeare scholarship, in part through the power of the college’s Board of Trustees to appoint the library’s leadership.

Joseph Quincy Adams was the first regularly appointed Folger director, serving from 1934 until he died in 1946. With the energetic support of Amherst president Stanley King, Class of 1903, Adams greatly expanded the library’s holdings and secured its standing as a premier research center. During the Adams years, the library acquired the collection of British newspaper publisher Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, including more than 8,000 rare books printed in England between 1475 and 1640. According to Paster, that purchase, made in 1938 and orchestrated by King, gave the library what is today the world’s third-largest collection of early English printed books. Paster says the acquisition shaped the future of the library. “It turned the Folger from a fairly narrow, literary, rare collection to a much broader collection across academic disciplines,” she says.

For the 30 years that followed, through the tenure of Louis B. Wright (whom the Amherst trustees hired on the basis of his accomplishments in modernizing the Huntington Library in California), the Folger honed its operations. However, it remained aloof from popular culture.

That changed dramatically after the editors of Time chose to illustrate a story about America’s great teachers with cover portraits of 10 educators, including O.B. Hardison, a charismatic Renaissance scholar from the University of North Carolina. This caught the notice of Amherst president Calvin Plimpton ’39, and in 1969, Plimpton engineered Hardison’s ascendancy to the Folger’s directorship, one of the plum jobs in the humanities. Before Hardison, the institution was a sort of musty tomb—a place where, in the words of Robert Aubry Davis, who hosts an Emmy-winning arts show on public television in Washington, D.C., “mole-like creatures wallowed in the honey of Shakespeareiana.” In its first decades, Paster says, “the library functioned in a hermetically sealed way. There wasn’t a lot of public outreach.” By the time Hardison left the directorship in 1983, the Folger was an outward-looking institution intent on insinuating a love of Shakespeare into everyone it touched.

Marifrances Hardison, the widow of O.B. (as everyone called him), remembers the day Plimpton came to Chapel Hill and said he wanted to make the Folger a cultural and community institution, not just a repository for old treasures. When she and her husband first entered the library, she recalls, they encountered the public face of the institution: an uninterested secretary, feet up on the desk, reading the newspaper. Marifrances sums up her first impression of the library: “It was dead as a doornail.”

O.B. Hardison, with the full moral and financial support of the Amherst trustees, launched a decade-long frenzy of new initiatives and creative flourishes to infuse the Folger into the increasingly vibrant Washington cultural scene. “The Amherst trustees,” Paster says, “gave O.B. Hardison a mandate he was only too ready and willing to implement.” One of the first things Hardison did was to update the library’s Elizabethan theater, bringing it up to code for productions. While that project was underway, Hardison staged a rock musical, Dionysus Wants You!, in a church nearby. (By all accounts, O.B. had a deep affection for young people. The Hardisons lived across the street from the library. Whenever there was a demonstration to end the war in Vietnam, Marifrances says, sleeping bags lined the floor of their house.)

Janet Griffin, now the artistic producer of the Folger Theater and the library’s director of education and public programs, came to the Folger in the latter years of Hardison’s tenure. She remembers him as “a mind on legs.” To bring the public into the library, Hardison created a docents program. During his tenure, the library mounted the first major traveling exhibition of Folger treasures. It developed teaching materials for inner-city students. It staged annual children’s Shakespeare festivals, featuring scores of young performers. Hardison also created the Folger Institute, a joint venture to organize seminars and symposia with universities. The library became home to the foundation that confers the annual PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Not only that, the Folger began a resident early-music ensemble called the Folger Consort, a film archive, a series of modern poetry readings and the “Folger Books” imprint, all under Hardison’s leadership.

When the trustees named Gundersheimer as the next director, the library’s renown was emblazoned on the cultural map. The Renaissance historian describes his tenure, which lasted from 1984 until 2002, as a period in which he consolidated some programs, eliminated others and put a more focused effort into fundraising. “By the time I came,” he notes, “the library was in serious financial difficulty.” The biggest change came when the library discontinued its large-scale theatrical productions in 1985. During the Gunders­heimer years, the library created a fellowship program, established about 50 named acquisition endowments and built a center to house its public and education programs. The library also strengthened its governance procedures and its connections to Amherst. During his years at the helm, the endowment grew from $27 million to $175 million.

Paster was named director five years ago. She says she is “the lucky inheritor” of both the fruitful legacy of Hardison’s exertions and Gundersheimer’s more sober management. She arrived at the library after 27 years as a Shakespeare scholar at the George Washington University and as editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, which she continues to edit. As Folger director, Paster is the steward of what she calls “an amazing cultural institution” and sees it as a priority to build the library’s national profile. During her tenure, the library has made building improvements, completing a conservation lab and repairing a book vault. It has created online resources for teachers and students, expanded its Website and developed audio tours. Paster has also focused on acquisitions, recently partnering with the Breslauer Foundation, which supported the library’s purchase of a $100,000 manuscript on Renaissance magic. The library has secured funding to endow major long-term fellowships for scholars and to catalog the manuscript collections of more than 56,000 items. This year, in a new partnership with George Washington University, the Folger is offering an undergraduate seminar on the history of the book.

In no small measure, the library has flourished in its first 75 years because Henry Folger set into motion a process that combines the management of the library’s money with the Amherst endowment. “Every cultural institution experiences a pendulum swing between fat and famine,” says Griffin, who is in the position of spending some of the money that Paster and others work hard to raise, and who has experienced such swings during her long tenure at the library. “We haven’t had to scale back hugely during the famine years.” The Trustees of Amherst College continue to manage the endowment, even while other functions are managed by a recently organized Folger Board of Governors, chaired by Paul Ruxin ’65. A Chicago attorney, Ruxin is also a significant collector of rare books. Ruxin explains that the new Board of Governors is somewhat independent of the college so as to attract members with particular interests in Shakespeare and in Washington cultural organizations. The other alumni on the Board of Governors are Wyatt Haskell ’61; Morrison Webb ’69; Philip Winterer ’53, who is a life trustee of Amherst; and Cullen Murphy ’74, who is also on the Amherst Board of Trustees. Amherst trustee Karen Hastie Williams is also on the Folger Board.

In acquiring his cultural trove and in creating the library, Henry Folger’s instinct may well have been to claim Shakespeare as an American as well as an English icon. But what kind of icon did Shakespeare become? Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a professor of theater at American University and an active participant in the Folger Institute, describes herself as “a complete Shakespeare geek.” But, she adds, as an African American, she distrusts the idolatry the playwright’s image and work sometimes inspires. She is ambivalent about the elevation of Shakespeare as a cultural icon who represents, in her words, “the people who used to own us.” Part of the American experience, she maintains, is that African Americans might associate Shakespeare with “physical and intellectual oppression.”

At the same time, Jennings finds that many of Shakespeare’s themes and ideas have a special resonance for oppressed people. She notes, too, that Shakespeare’s plays provided early opportunity for racially integrated casting, including in Paul Robeson’s 1943 interpretation of Othello.

Today, Jennings points out, monuments to individual egos can take the form of Coors Field in Denver or the Trump Tower skyscrapers. Instead, Henry and Emily Folger decided to make a cultural treasure available to all sorts of people. “How interesting that [Folger] would want to have his name associated with an author who challenges us in so many ways,” Jennings says. “I find that more palatable than the way people create shrines to themselves nowadays.” Knowing something about how government and politicians work, Jennings also believes the Folgers were well advised to give Amherst control over their legacy: “Certainly, if it were me wanting to put something in Washington,” she remarks, “I would think long and hard about putting management of it in Washington.”

At the time of the library’s groundbreaking, the nation’s capital was a far quieter place. The Supreme Court Building did not yet exist. Congress worked part-time. “Washington,” Paster notes, “was not a very prepossessing city, even among American cities. It didn’t have any antiquities. It didn’t have any kind of real cultural heft.” It would have been a stretch, Paster believes, for Henry Folger to glimpse the city’s future as a cultural destination. “And yet,” she says, “he glimpsed it.”

About the Author: Eric Goldscheider is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He has written for The Boston Globe and The New York Times. He is currently working on a multi-generational memoir.

Editor’s note: In 2011 Michael Witmore, a scholar of Shakespeare and early modern literature as well as a pioneer in the digital analysis of Shakespeare’s texts, was named director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the sixth in the library’s 79-year history.