Big Changes at the Folger Shakespeare Library

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July 2, 2024
Big Changes at the Folger Shakespeare Library
Jamie Litton

One might assume that the most extensive Shakespeare collection in the world would be somewhere in the UK, but in fact, that honor belongs to the Folger Shakespeare Library. Located in Washington D.C., this center for Shakespearean scholarship opened in 1932 as a “gift to the American people” from Henry and Emily Folger who dedicated their lives to building a prolific Shakespeare collection.1 Since then, the Folger has continued to expand upon Shakespeare studies while contributing to K-12 education, theater, music, family programs, and much more. 

The Folger has undergone some major changes since closing its doors to the public four years ago for renovation. The building reopened on June 21, 2024 with a private ribbon-cutting ceremony that included a congratulatory message from King Charles III. Folger director Michael Witmore, who retired at the end of June, described the update as a reimagining that “provides a blueprint for visitors to engage with Shakespeare in new and interactive ways through the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of path-breaking research.”2  The building expansions are said to focus on creating a more accessible and welcoming experience for visitors of all ages and backgrounds, a marked change from the previous edifice which The New York Times says people found “forbidding or confusing.”3

In addition to the cosmetic changes and accessibility updates, the Folger has put all 82 of their copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio on display for the public after years of locking them in a vault door that was only ever opened for the most elite scholars. This move is undoubtedly representative of the larger conversation surrounding Shakespeare studies in recent years, namely, who is Shakespeare for? The Folger wants people to believe that he is indeed for everyone. 

This, of course, was not always the case. The Folger itself played a role in upholding racist gatekeeping around the Bard when in 1938 the library’s director refused to send tickets for the annual Shakespeare Birthday Lecture to Benjamin Brawley, a Black professor at Howard University, saying it would be “distasteful to a majority of our guests.” Brawley went to the event anyway, and “single-handedly integrated the social functions of the Folger.”3 Unfortunately, this anecdote is not surprising or unique. Shakespeare has historically been kept on a pedestal and often weaponized to uphold systems of oppression at work in our modern world. 

That brings us to the other monumental change happening over at the Folger: the naming of Shakespeare scholar Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper as the Folger’s next Director. After 20 years of experience at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where she currently serves as Director of Education, Dr. Karim-Cooper will step into her new role at the Folger on October 7, 2024, as the first person of color to hold the position.

Dr. Karim-Cooper is no stranger to the concept of democratizing Shakespeare. In the conclusion of her 2023 book The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race, she writes, “No one group can claim entitlement over these works or has special access to the gloriously diverse, discomforting and capacious store of words that is Shakespeare.”

In a literature-worthy bit of foreshadowing, The Great White Bard also grapples with the symbolic weight of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Shakespeare’s unsettling significance among far-right extremists and white supremacist groups. Referencing the insurrection that took place right outside the Folger on January 6, 2021, Karim-Cooper writes, “The insurrectionists discussed the Folger and actually composed a letter expressing reassurance to ‘Folger Shakespeare Library and Staff’.” Offering an explanation for the insurrectionists’ seemingly out-of-place concern for the Folger, she argues that “Shakespeare, constructed as an icon of white excellence some centuries ago, still represents the very best of Anglo-Saxon culture to those that may never have read a Shakespearean word or watched a moment on stage.”

As fate would have it, Dr. Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani-American woman, will soon find herself at the helm of the institution that has served as the American authority on Shakespeare for generations. Her work will undoubtedly continue to focus on a dynamic and human experience of Shakespeare.  As she writes in her book, “The Shakespeare that we think we know was invented in the eighteenth century by a nation bent on defining itself as an empire, a conqueror of the world and all the atrocities that brought with it. It is not that Shakespeare that we need, nor should we want it.”4 Instead, Karim-Cooper plans to highlight the Shakespeare we do need, saying in a Folger press release that she is “truly honored to uphold [the Folger’s] founding mission while forging new ways to demonstrate how Shakespeare’s work speaks to our moment.”5  We are excited to see how the Folger will continue keeping Shakespeare’s works alive and in conversation with diverse voices in the coming years.