THE FOLGER Library is showing off again. Its Elizabethan great hall is a cornucopia of the Shakespeare study center's recent acquisitions, which range from rare old manuscripts to broad old broadsides.
Displaying the fruits of five years of collecting, the exhibition includes a wealth of items from the Shakespeare era but virtually nothing related directly to the bard himself. The Folger's inventory of Shakespeareana is so complete, curator Elizabeth Niemyer says, that "except for new scholarly editions, we buy very little Shakespeare."
With 79 First Folios on its shelves, the library can afford to be blase about the prospect of acquiring another, but the search goes on for anything that contributes to our understanding of Shakespeare's life and times.
The library's 280,000 books, supplemented by myriad manuscripts and memorabilia, embrace all aspects of the intellectual awakening and social upheaval that led Europe from the dark ages to the industrial revolution.
Added to the Folger collection are such milestones of that journey as a gorgeous 1474 edition of St. Augustine's "City of God"; the first illustrated English cookbook; a 1543 German treatise on how to make a go-anywhere sundial; a 1636 London almanac; a 1669 manual of musketry and; a 1662 book by Henry Stubbs on "The Indian Nectar or a Discourse Concerning Chocolata," which introduced London to an exotic new drink.
The lofty tomes and practical treatises are relieved by such sprightly toss-offs as "A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms," which is a 1720 pub-crawler's guide to London, and a series of satirical laments on "The Great Claret Search" that followed King William III's 1689 ban on the importation of French wines.
The centerpiece of the show is the original prompt copy of Edward Howard's 1667 play, "The Change of Crownes," along with the license issued by the Master of the Revels, approving its performance.
King Charles II, who attended opening night, was not amused; the play never was performed again nor published. It was thought to be lost until 1938, six years after the Folger's founding. The library waited patiently for half a century until it came up for sale, and now a fabulously rare manuscript that lay in private hands for 322 years is freely available to any scholar.
The exhibition catalogue is itself a collector's item, a limited edition of 750 copies at $30, splendidly printed on heavy rag paper and featuring the very latest thing in bookbinding: Velcro closures.
FIVE YEARS OF ACQUISITIONS -- Through March 17 at the Folger Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202/544-7077. Open 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday. Metro: Capitol South or Union Station. Call ahead for wheelchair access.