The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

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“Decisive two thumbs up for a compelling and lucid narrative of the ‘finest book in the world.’”

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays is a prose drama in three acts with five main actors. Act One is a romp through a brief history of Will Shakespeare’s life and especially his time as an actor, playwright, poet, and businessman in Elizabethan England. Obviously he is one of the main actors in his own drama. His daily activities centered on the Globe Theater (in which he owned a share) and the obsessive work of writing, producing, and sometimes acting in his plays.

Two other main actors in this tale emerge at the end of Act One, John Hemmings and Henry Condell. Close associates of Shakespeare they were confidantes and fellow actors in the theater company, The King’s Men.

During his lifetime and after his death Shakespeare was not regarded any more or less highly than many of his contemporaries. He was destined for the ash heap of history had not Hemmings and Condell, recognizing his genius, collected 36 of his plays and published them. They handed this significant task to William Jaggard, a London printer, who in 1623 produced an edition of 750 copies of what became known as the First Folio.

Act Two introduces our fourth leading actor Henry Clay Folger and details his rise from modest beginnings to great wealth. A lawyer and oil industrialist, Folger rose to be president and chairman of Standard Oil, the flagship enterprise of the Gilded Age.

As a protégée, then friend and golfing partner of his employer, J. D. Rockefeller, Folger became a wealthy man. From his early student days at Amherst College he displayed a love of Shakespearean works and lore. He watered the seeds of his embryonic bibliophilic mania by buying Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays even when he could scarcely afford to do so. Soon he focused his obsession on all things Shakespearean but especially copies of the First Folio. His wife, Emily Jordan Folger, and companion in every way but especially in abetting Folger’s pursuit of this treasure, must surely win the prize for best supporting role.

Together for over 37 years this modest, private couple collected an enormous trove of Shakespeare’s Folios and Elizabethan memorabilia that they housed in warehouses across New York City. For all those years, childless, they lived in a rented house in Brooklyn, too small and too vulnerable to contain such riches.

Folger’s pursuit of the Sibthorp/Vincent and Bodleian First Folios are twin centerpieces in the book. Long before the end of his acquisitive frenzy, Folger earned a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most knowledgeable Shakespeare experts and collectors.

Act Three begins with Folger’s retirement around age 70, and the realization of his and Emily’s vision to build a library worthy of their collection. They chose Washington, D.C., for their library and erected a modern building with Art Deco embellishments. The building covered the length of a city block and is situated behind the current Supreme Court, and in close proximity to the Library of Congress.

Henry died at age 73 from complications of minor surgery. His wife assumed oversight of the project and two years later in 1932, she presided at the dedication of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library itself is the fifth actor.

According to author Andrea Mays, 80 years later (2012) the vast collection still has not been thoroughly catalogued. Bona fide, international scholars may seek permission to study the abundant resources. The public is admitted to a small area of selected rooms and can attend various events several times a year.

Perhaps most significant to the perpetuation of Shakespeare’s genius and a keystone for Folger’s vision and collector’s zeal is the Shakespeare Folger Library publications and educational resources. Any school or college student anywhere who has studied a Shakespeare play most likely did so from holding and reading a Folger’s edition—a true reproduction founded on the exhaustive research conducted on the Library’s First Folios.

Henry Clay Folger helped to elevate William Shakespeare as one of humanity’s luminous giants. His Library manifests the sentiment expressed by Ben Jonson in his epitaph to the master: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Every play has a producer; and author, Andrea Mays, in this production, can take a bow as one of the best. An economics professor and self-confessed Shakespearean fanatic, her knowledge and expertise hurtle us on a thrilling journey. Mays’ painstaking research especially into Folger’s life—his acquisitions and business dealings, personal and corporate on behalf of his collection and Standard Oil are fascinating to read. She writes in lucid, well-paced prose.

A decisive two thumbs up for a compelling narrative of the “finest book in the world:” the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 80 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio.


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