People build collections of items every day. Some become absorbed and go to great lengths to acquire a particular object. In the early twentieth century, Henry Clay Folger is one of those collectors who had a love for all things Shakespeare.
Andrea Mays in The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio examines Folger and his mania. William Shakespeare celebrated today for his plays and poetry throughout the world, died in relative obscurity in 1616. While his plays had been performed on the London stage, some had never been published.
Several years after Shakespeare's death, two friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell decided to publish a complete set of his plays. They wanted to remember their friend and fellow actor and to keep his words alive. Shakespeare following the custom of his day would not and could not publish his work. No original copies of his plays exist. No one is sure how or what sources Heminges and Condell used to compile what became the First Folio with thirty-six plays published in one volume. Some of the plays had never appeared in print. 750 copies of the Fist Folio were published in 1623 with the first recorded sales in December of that year. With the publication of the First Folio, Shakespeare's reputation as a playwright began and has only intensified in the centuries since.
Henry Folger became an executive with Standard Oil. He also had a lifelong interest in Shakespeare which he shared with his wife Emily, even keeping a copy of his plays with him to read as he had time. One day, he went into an auction house and bought a copy of the inferior Fourth Folio of Shakespeare's plays. His obsession had begun.
Folger continued to build his business career and began to collect rare books. He also purchased his initial First Folio one with many flaws. Over the centuries, many copies of Shakespeare's First Folio have disappeared and others have missing pages. Folger then began the quest to buy other copies of the First Folio for his own enjoyment and to fill some inner need. He also bought other items related to Shakespeare storing everything in warehouses throughout New York City never in his own home.
Sometimes Folger encountered controversy when buying a First Folio. He would go the extra mile to secure a particular copy even if he was told it could not be purchased. English critics complained that wealthy American collectors were taking away the English cultural heritage. One copy of the First Folio that Folger pursued slipped through his fingers when the Bodleian Library at Oxford University managed to re-acquire the copy that had sold years before. The English press helped to outbid Folger for that copy—something he never forgot or forgave. In all, Folger collected eighty-two copies of the First Folio.
Towards the end of his life, Folger decided what to do with his vast collection. He decided to build a library for scholars to have access to the material. After looking at several sites, he selected land in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill near the Library of Congress. After buying up the property, he oversaw the design of the building. While the outside of the library has a marble facade in keeping with other Washington structure, areas inside transport the visitor to Elizabethan England. Folger died before construction finished, but his widow carried on his plans. The Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1932 honoring the man who persisted in mania for Shakespeare and still serves scholars today. The 82 copies of the First Folio remain safe within the library walls and it is unlikely that so many copies will ever be collected together again. With the recent discovery of an unknown First Folio in Scotland, I imagine Folger would like to try to add it to his collection as one can never have too many copies of the First Folio.