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Shakespeare's 450th birthday celebrations began Jan. 28 at D.C.'s Folger

American artist Pinckney Marcius Simons' watercolors adorn every page of this 1908 French edition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In Folger exhibit "Shakespeare’s the Thing".
American artist Pinckney Marcius Simons' watercolors adorn every page of this 1908 French edition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In Folger exhibit "Shakespeare’s the Thing".
Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

"Shakespeare’s the Thing"


Washington's renowned Folger Shakespeare Library is making much ado about the Bard's 450th birthday, with a double opening of an exhibition "Shakespeare’s the Thing" and the play "Richard III" Jan. 28.

This also begins a two-year double commemoration at the Folger, offering many fascinating events into 2016 -- the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Born April 23, 1564, he died on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616.

So, all hail "This King Shakespeare", as Thomas Carlyle wrote; and here's to "Bardolatry", as George Bernard Shaw called Shakespeare worship, including Shaw's own idolatry of the Bard.

The glorious exhibition features treasures from the Folger vault that are "unusual, unexpected, and downright fun," exhibit curator Georgianna Ziegler, Folger's head of reference, told guests at a, well, birthday party Jan. 27.

The free exhibit was "crowd-sourced", with Folger staff choosing their favorite item in the vault -- the world's largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials. The resulting show is "like opening a birthday present and seeing what's inside," the curator told the audience.

This dream of an exhibit is exemplified by "A Midsummer Night's Dream", with extraordinarily varied selections:

  • The famed overture score, handwritten by Felix Mendelssohn, "a real Folger treasure".
  • An exquisite 1908 French edition of the play, illustrated on each page with watercolors by American artist Pinckney Marcius Simons. Dr. Ziegler's favorite among the 100 items -- "It's really a luscious book" -- and it's digitized on a tablet next to the book.
  • A Barbie doll as the play's heroine, Titania. (What, no Ken doll as Oberon or Bottom?)

Other examples of the breadth, depth, and fun, in these Shakespearean "Things":

  • Earliest to latest Shakespeare. The earliest modern edition of Shakespeare, published in 1709, is near an iPad with the new app for "Othello" using Folger digital texts (Folger Luminary Shakespeare iPad App).
  • Translated Shakespeare. His plays have been translated into 45 languages, including Afrikaans, Bengali, and Hebrew. Examples here include "Macbeth" in Estonian and "Hamlet" in Sanskrit, open to "To be or not to be."
  • Musical Shakespeare. The range begins with "Songs, airs, and choruses," sung at actor-manager-celeb entrepreneur David Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. Two centuries later, John Guare's and Galt MacDermot's rock version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" won the 1972 Tony for Best Musical. Guare's lyrics protest the Vietnam War and more, like "Clean air only makes you wheeze; Welfare keeps you on your knees."
  • Royal Shakespeare. Queen Victoria hired actor-manager Charles Kean to produce Shakespearean plays for her family and court at Windsor Castle. The queen "wrote little comments afterwards in her diary," Dr. Ziegler noted. A decorative 1854 playbill for "The Tempest" is emblazoned, "God Save the Queen and Prince". A different Keane production of that play has a promptbook with watercolors of elaborate set designs. Playgoer and Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll said that the scenery "surpassed anything I ever saw."
  • Surreal Shakespeare.

-- Salvador Dali designed intriguing sets and costumes for "As You Like It", a 1948 production in Rome directed by Luchino Visconti. One critic termed it "a riot of color and wild imagination."

-- Jean Cocteau's 1924 version of "Romeo and Juliet" has spectacular set designs by Jean Hugo, great-grandson of novelist Victor Hugo.

  • Surreal in a really different way.

-- Film adaptations for teens, like "10 Things I Hate About You", based on "The Taming of the Shrew". The 1999 film was a breakout for its star Heath Ledger, who died at 28 from an accidental overdose of prescription medications.

-- Seven Ages of Man ("As You Like It") cards distributed by the 19th century Dobbins Electric Soap Co. -- a precursor to baseball cards.

-- A 2007 Valentine candy box, "Poetry of Love", with Shakespearean "compliments, come-ons, and insights".

The exhibit gives insight into Shakespeare and the myriad of ways he has been seen through "things" through the ages. It's arranged in four sections: Printing, Performing, Depicting, and Fixating on Shakespeare.

Speaking of performing Shakespeare, for the first time, the Folger Elizabethan Theatre has been reconfigured "in the round" for its production of "Richard III".

It's directed by Robert Richmond, who also directed "Twelfth Night" and "Henry V" at the Folger last year. (The Helen Hayes Awards nominations, Washington's version of Broadway's Tonys, announced Jan. 27, gave "Twelfth Night" three nods, and "Henry V" one, among the Folger Theatre's ten nominations.)

The Folger's many associated programs include "Finding Richard", a discussion Feb. 5 about finding the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England in Sept. 2012.

The archaeological dig and verification of the royal remains through DNA research will be discussed by geneticist Turi King and fieldwork director Mathew Morris, both part of the Greyfriars Project. Richard III was only 32 when he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth almost 530 years ago in 1485.

Other programs include the free annual:

  • Shakespeare's Birthday Open House will be April 6, with jugglers, court jesters, song and dance, Elizabethan crafts, cake, and other frolicking. It's the one day that the Folger's majestic reading rooms are open to all. The Old Reading Room’s stained glass window depicts the Seven Ages of Man, and the carved oak paneling is adorned with 16th century Flemish tapestries and paintings from the master's plays.

So, "In honor of whose birth these triumphs are...For men (and women) to see, and seeing wonder at." (Apologies to "Pericles, Prince of Tyre", and its playwright, Shakespeare.)

For more info: Folger Shakespeare Library,, 201 East Capitol Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 202-544-4600; Box Office 202-544-7077. "Shakespeare’s the Thing", Free, Jan. 28-June 15. "Richard III", Jan. 28-March 9. The Folger, on Capitol Hill, is the world's largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials. It is a gift to America from Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger.

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