Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

Press Contacts:
Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342 or
Esther French
(202) 675–0326 or
Press Tour with Curator:
Tue, Jan. 19, 10:30am

New Exhibition

January 20  March 27, 2016

Washington, DC— We will never have a photograph of William Shakespeare or a recording of his voice, but we can catch glimpses of the man in this stunning array of documents from his own lifetime.
Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, an exhibition curated by Heather Wolfe, brings together 50 of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare's life and career, drawn from the Folger collection and other major British and U.S. institutions. Some of these items have never been exhibited in the United States, and some are on public display for the first time ever. 
Among them: deeds recording Shakespeare's real estate purchases, drafts of the heraldic grant of arms that he helped his father to obtain, diary entries about seeing his plays and buying his works, and quick takes on Shakespeare's fast-rising reputation—from disdained, "upstart crow" in 1592, to the "sweet swan of Avon," as his friend Ben Jonson describes him in the preliminary material to the first edition of Shakespeare's collected works, the 1623 First Folio.
The only known account of Shakespeare's death, also included in the exhibition, is a word-of-mouth tale written in a diary nearly 50 years later by John Ward, vicar of Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died of a fever, Ward wrote in the early 1660s, after an overly "merry meeting" with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton.
Seen together, these glimpses provide a fresh and intimate perspective on the most famous author in the world.

Exhibition Highlights

  • the only surviving copy of the first edition of the first Shakespeare play to be printed, Titus Andronicus
  • Shakespeare's copy of the bargain and sale for his purchase of a residence in Blackfriars near the winter theater of the King's Men
  • Shakespeare's copy of the final concord for his purchase of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • the draft "letters patent" authorizing a coat of arms for Shakespeare's father, and subsequently Shakespeare
  • a fragment of a bookseller's list which includes one of Shakespeare's "lost" plays, Love's Labor’s Won
  • a section of a play thought to be in Shakespeare's own handwriting
  • the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare
  • the earliest references to Shakespeare as a playwright and a poet

Four interactive touchscreen experiences provide further opportunities to learn about Shakespeare’s life and world, as does a related website, Shakespeare Documented,, details below.

The Folger’s historic Great Hall has been transformed for this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. An animated ceiling installation reflects on themes within Shakespeare’s life and work, magically weaving texts, patterns, and manuscripts into the historic strapwork ornamentation, while on ground level, a striking red steel framework provides a series of alcoves in which to view the exhibition’s treasures.

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition items are drawn from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection, and loans from the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; British Library; Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms; the London Metropolitan Archives; The National Archives, UK; University of Edinburgh; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; and The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers.

Selected items from Shakespeare, Life of an Icon will travel to London in the spring for the British Library exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (April 15 – September 6, 2016).


Heather Wolfe is curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge. She has curated numerous Folger exhibitions and has written widely on early modern manuscripts and the intersections between print and manuscript. She has edited The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 (2007), The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary (2007),  Letterwriting in Renaissance England (2004), an exhibition catalog co-written with Alan Stewart, and Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland: Life and Letters (2001). She is principal investigator for EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online), an IMLS-funded Folger initiative to create a free and searchable database of images and transcriptions of early modern manuscripts created in England or written in English.


Shakespeare Documented

This free and publicly-accessible online exhibition, launching January 20, will include images, descriptions, and transcriptions of all known documentary, manuscript, and printed references and allusions to Shakespeare, his works, and additional references to his family, during their lifetimes and shortly thereafter. Nearly 500 references, found in roughly 400 print and manuscript documents contributed by over 30 partner institutions, will provide a rich portrait of Shakespeare as a professional playwright, actor, poet, business man, and family man who lived in both London and Stratford-upon-Avon, tracing his path from a man of his time to a household name.


“Dig for Shakespeare”: New Place Revealed

Monday, Feb 22, 7:30pm. $15/$10 for members

Dr. Diana Owen, Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Dr. Kevin Colls, Archaeological Project Manager, University of Staffordshire, present a special lecture on their findings at Shakespeare's home.  For the first time ever, the site of Shakespeare’s family home in Stratford upon Avon has been uncovered by a seven-year archaeological investigation. Join us to learn about the fascinating discoveries that have been made, what they tell us about Shakespeare’s life in Stratford and how the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is re-presenting New Place for today’s generation to enjoy.

Folger Family Programs
Recommended for ages 5–14

Living the Shakespeare Life

Saturday, Feb 6; 10-11am (ages 5-7), 11am-12pm (ages 8-14). Free. Registration required.

2016 is a big year for Shakespeare – it’s the 400th anniversary of his death! Learn all about Shakespeare’s life, from Stratford-Upon-Avon to London, and find out how the world’s greatest playwright lived.

Merry Women of Shakespeare

Saturday, Mar 5; 10-11am (ages 5-7), 11am-12pm (ages 8-14). Free. Registration required.

Are you a fan of Beatrice or Ophelia? What about Viola, Juliet, or Kate? In honor of Women’s History Month, explore your favorite heroines from the works of Shakespeare.


Monday – Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm
Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge.  No advance reservations required.
Wednesday at 12pm; Saturday at 2pm
Folger docents offer a special exhibition-focused tour, free of charge. No advance reservations required.
Group Tours
Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675-0395.


Folger Shakespeare Library is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world. The Folger welcomes millions of visitors online and in person. We provide unparalleled access to a huge array of resources, from original sources to modern interpretations. With the Folger, you can experience the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of pathbreaking research. We offer the opportunity to see and even work with early modern sources, driving discovery and transforming education for students of all ages. Join us online, on the road, or in Washington, DC. More at

Throughout 2016, the Folger Shakespeare Library is celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare with The Wonder of Will, including exhibitions, performances, special events, and more—at the Folger, online, and across the United States. Learn more about The Wonder of Will at


Press Contacts:
Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342 or
Esther French
(202) 675–0326 or
Press Tour with Curator:
Tue, Jan. 19, 10:30am