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Out of the Vault and Into the Light: Precious Shakespeare Works to Tour U.S.

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This First Folio is among the 82 copies owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.
WAMU/Rebecca Sheir
This First Folio is among the 82 copies owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

What do William Shakespeare and Maxwell Smart have in common?

As Folger Shakespeare Library director Michael Witmore will tell you, they both involve what he calls the “’Get Smart’ Moment.” It happens after you travel two stories underground in the library, open a fire door, and emerge in a room with a domed ceiling and an enormous steel bank vault with an outer door so massive it takes at least two people to shut it.

You then unlock a heavy, barred inner gate — which shuts behind you with a clang — and board an elevator. You head even deeper underground until, at last, you reach the inner sanctum: the temperature- and humidity-controlled Folger Vault.

The vault is the size of a city block and contains so many rows of densely-stacked shelves, that Witmore says “you can start to see parallel lines converge, like in a classical perspective painting.”

Hundreds of thousands of items are kept safe in the vault, like a leather-bound, pocket-sized notebook in which Lord Byron penned his favorite Shakespeare lines in elegant, flowing script. Witmore picks up the little burgundy book and tries reading some lines: “For it so falls out / that what we have we prize… something… to the worth / while we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost, / why then we rack the value."

The Folger Vault is accessed through the Folger Reading Room (pictured here), down some steps, through a series of doors, and down an elevator. (Flickr)

“If I were a better Shakespearean I’d know from memory what that missing word is,” he adds with a laugh.

Then there’s the palm-sized book Witmore puts in my palm: Walt Whitman’s personal copy of Shakespeare’s poems.

“It represents the deep connection between the English Renaissance lyric tradition, and American lyric poetry. And this is his go-to copy of Shakespeare,” Witmore says.

Then there’s another major item in the vault — dozens of them, actually: Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after The Bard’s death. It’s believed 232 copies of the First Folio exist; the Folger owns 82 of them.

“This book is probably the most important single source we have for Shakespeare’s plays,” Witmore explains. “Half of his plays appear only in this book, like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar.

“These books were all printed in one place, in London. And then they went all over the world,” he continues. “And Mr. and Mrs. Folger were collecting them and they brought them back together in one place. So we’re very fortunate to have them here in Washington and to make them available to researchers.”

And they’re very excited to take that even further, in 2016, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

“We have 82 copies of the First Folio. And we’ve identified 18 copies that are complete and ready to travel,” Witmore says. “We would like people in all 50 states and three territories to get a chance to see this book in person.”

The Folger Vault includes this "prompt book" from the 1930 Othello production starring Paul Robeson. (Rebecca Sheir)

So the Folger is encouraging libraries, museums, historical societies and other venues to apply to host a First Folio for four weeks; the deadline is September 5th. Something the Folger will strongly be considering is how well venues will be able to care for the Folios.

“First we want them to be safe,” Witmore says. “So we’ll want to know about the space where the book will be presented.”

The Folger will provide insurance and display cases, but venues must have professional guards present, and monitor the book’s environment, in terms of temperature, humidity and light.

“You can think of these books as kind of like a box of candles,” Witmore explains. “Every time you use the book, you take a small portion of its lifetime away. It’s like lighting a candle for 20 seconds and blowing it out.”

But if we never ‘light these candles,’ Witmore says, “That would be wrong! We need to understand what it was really like and what these books actually say and feel like.”

Because The Bard isn’t just for private researchers or prosperous collectors — like the billionaire who, in 2001, nabbed a First Folio for $6.1 million.

“So much of the way in which we think and speak as Americans was influenced by this book,” Witmore says. “And so we want people to really get that excitement of saying, ‘Wow! That’s a First Folio. And it’s in my community, and I can see it!’”

And what’s more, they can feel invested in it, take ownership of it. Which, in a way, brings us back to that quote from Lord Byron’s notebook, which I looked up after leaving the vault. It’s one of the Friar’s speeches from Much Ado About Nothing:

For it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth,
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost,
Why, then we rack the value; then we find
The virtue, that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.

In other words: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But if the Folger Shakespeare Library has its way, that will never be the case. Instead, the whole world will have access to The Bard — and keep cherishing The Bard — for generations to come.

Music: "Miranda" by Mychael Nyman from Prospero's Books

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