Thrice happy the nation that Shakespeare has charm'd More happy the bosoms his genius has warm'd! Ye children of nature, of fashion and whim. He painted you all, all join to praise him.

--David Garrick, Shakespearean actor

THESE WORDS are carved in the wood over the tall doorway. Above them the detailed plaster ceiling stretches over the vast room lined with dark oak walls, giving a sense of something old, strong and wise.

"There's a kind of richness in this place," said Edward Weismiller, a George Washington University professor, his arm panning the room like a movie camera. He stood in the Great Hall of the Folger Library, dwarfed by the row of giant, narrow windows next to him. Behind him, a tall lamp with electric candle-like bulbs cast shadows.

Weismiller was one of about 350 Shakespeare groupies who came to a Great Hall reception--an event that seemed out of character in the scholarly atmosphere--to eat tortellini, talk Shakespeare and celebrate the new 50th anniversary exhibit there.

"Any exhibit will show you things you don't think exist, things you don't believe in," Weismiller said, "but here they are." And to see "The Collector and the Dream: Henry "lay Folger and the Founding of the Folger Library" is to believe in it.

Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan, were so taken with the Bard that in 1885 Folger bought his bride a facsimile of the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare's works for $1.25. For the rest of their lives, the Folgers devoted much energy to seeing their collection of Shakespearean materials grow and mature. By 1930, they were responsible for raising one of the finest in the world.

"The purpose of this exhibit is to provide an insight to his original collection and to emphasize Mr. Folger's interest in Shakespeare," said O.B. Hardison, director of the Folger Library, as he stepped into the hall a few days after the reception for a brief tour of the new exhibit.

The exhibit, which illustrates the range of the Folgers' private collection, begins to the right of the entrance. A white bust of Shakespeare stands in the corner and seems to watch visitors enter. To its right a panel presents the history of the building and its architect, Paul Cret.

"With all those marble palaces on Capitol Hill, Folger wanted an all-timbered building," said Hardison, pointing to the rendering of the building on the wall, "but Cret said no."

Eventually, Cret got his way with the outside of the East Capitol Street Building, and Folger got his on the inside. Folger died a month after the cornerstone was laid.

The exhibit starts with a tall glass case filled with assorted memorabilia about the Folgers and the opening of the Folger Library. In it are pictures of the Folgers, a picture of President Hoover leaving the library, a bowl that had been presented to Folger and assorted Shakespearean items.

In the next tall case is a small statue of David Garrick, a miniature four-volume set of Shakespeare printed in 1843, a corset supposedly from Queen Elizabeth I, and other knickknacks from the era.

In between that case and the next, a white bust of Folger keeps an eye on the middle of the hall.

A lute, one of the most popular instruments in Elizabethan England, is housed behind glass in the next chest. Made in 1598 by Michele Harton, the lute is in good working order, although Hardison said it is rarely played. Victorian gloves and a gold snake belt worn in a Paris performance of "Anthony and Cleopatra" keep the lute company.

Along the opposite wall of the hallway are smaller glass cases. These hold mostly materials on Shakespeare's works, his interest in science and meditation, his life in Stratford and Warwickshire, his manuscripts, sources and contemporaries.

"There's no place you can find the kind of information you get here," said Alvin C. Reeves, one unabashed Folger fanatic who stood looking into the glass case marked "Shakespeare's Contemporaries." In it were papers dealing with such Elizabethan poets and dramatists as Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene and Edward Alleyn.

"I think everybody is pretty proud of the Folger," Hardison said, after taking time out from running the place to explain each part of the exhibit to a visitor.

He figures he'll look at the exhibit at least once a week for as long as it runs through the summer, when he estimates 1,000 people a day will walk through it.

"When it's displayed this way, one can savor it," Hardison said with a grin.