The Washington Post

Folger Shakespeare Library looks toward a brighter future

The Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington is being renovated. (Ron Charles/Washington Post) The Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington is being renovated this summer to let in more light. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

A new exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library looks back at the organization’s founder, but elsewhere there are signs that the library has its sights on the future.

The Great Hall, where exhibits are usually staged, has just closed for the summer for a $1.5 million renovation. New windows will let natural light into the hall for the first time in decades, according to Garland Scott, head of external relations for the library. The renovation will also provide new exhibition cases and improved climate control to help preserve the priceless collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts.

When the Great Hall reopens in October, the first exhibit will show “the broad shifts in the theatrical production of Shakespeare’s plays over the centuries — and the sometimes surprising changes made to the texts,” Scott said.

But there is a small gem to see at the Folger before then.

Mandella “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” signed by Nelson Mandela when he was a prisoner in South Africa has never been shown in the United States before. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

A cozy alcove where the gift shop used to be has been transformed to display a copy of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” signed by Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners while they were held on South Africa’s Robben Island during the 1970s. Sonny Venkatrathnam, who convinced a guard to let him keep the book with him, asked his fellow prisoners to sign their names next to passages of Shakespeare that particularly moved them. Visitors to the Folger can see the book opened to page showing Mandela’s signature alongside these lines from the Act II of “Julius Caesar”:

Cowards die many times before their deaths:

The valiant never taste of death but once.

This is the first time the book has been displayed in the United States. On Monday, June 3, the Folger will stage a free public reading of Matthew Hahn’s “The Robben Island Bible,” a play based on interviews with some of the former prisoners who signed the book along with Mandela.

And if you can’t make it to Washington, the Folger will be coming to you wherever you are.

Earlier this month, the library announced a collaboration with Simon & Schuster and Luminary Digital Media to produce interactive adaptations of all of Shakespeare’s plays. App editions of “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo & Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be offered for sale in November.

These apps will include audio performances produced at the Folger Theatre, along with video clips, photos and commentary suitable for high school students. The most curious feature of this new format will be the inclusion of social networking to allow teachers and students to comment and share their thoughts about the plays. (On iTunes, Luminary Digital already offers a $9.99 app of “The Tempest” that includes some of these features.)

“O brave new world,” indeed.


Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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