The Wonder of Will: Connecting Americans with Shakespeare

Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare

When Henry and Emily Folger built the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, it was because they saw Shakespeare as a vital resource for the American people. Recalling Henry's ideas, Emily described Shakespeare as “one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” Connecting modern Americans to William Shakespeare was an abiding pleasure and key theme of our 400 Years of Shakespeare celebration. 

Among the highlights, described below: The Folger exhibition America's Shakespeare, which began in Washington, DC, later toured to Los Angeles as America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West. The new play District Merchants, a variation on The Merchant of Venice, was set in Washington, DC, after the Civil War; the issues it raised about race and religion inspired the community initiative CrossTalk DC. The Folger's Theater Partnership, first established as part of the 400 Years of Shakespeare celebration, currently includes partnerships with more than 40 theaters throughout the United States. Folger Education, meanwhile, focused its Teaching Shakespeare Institute on some of the plays most closely associated with American life, including Othello, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice

America’s Shakespeare and America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West

The Folger exhibition America’s Shakespeare traced Shakespeare’s extraordinary influence on America’s history and culture with rare letters, costumes, books, and film clips (Apr 7-Jul 24, 2016). Later that year, the exhibition took on a second life in Los Angeles as America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West (Nov 17, 2016 – Feb 26, 2017). Presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Public Library, The Bard Goes West added items that highlighted Shakespeare’s legacy in California, from gold mining camps to the early film industry.

Explore America's Shakespeare

District Merchants and CrossTalk DC

A new variation on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written by four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Aaron Posner, District Merchants brought the tale of money, merchandise, and mercy to a post-Civil War Washington, DC. May 31-Jul 3, 2016

Watch the District Merchants trailer

This Folger Theatre-commissioned play also sparked conversations about race, religion, and identity as part of CrossTalk DC, a community engagement initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

A Crossalk DC participant on the importance of the project


For many Americans, their high school experience with Shakespeare is a formative one, which is why the Folger is committed to improving Shakespeare education. In July 2016, twenty-five middle and high school teachers from around the United States worked with scholars, theater professionals, and mentor teachers at the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This flagship program of Folger Education, established in 1984, equips educators to confidently teach Shakespeare with an active and language-based approach. The 2016 TSI participants explored OthelloThe Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice—in particular, their connections to American history and culture.

Folger Education also partnered with District of Columbia Public Schools to provide intensive professional development for 115 teachers and establish a new Folger Romeo and Juliet curriculum for all ninth graders.

To strengthen the teaching of Shakespeare to undergraduate students, the Folger Institute—building on the First Folio tour—convened a collaborative conversation with college faculty about teaching agendas, strategies, tactics, and resources in the summer of 2016. Funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities, the program also awarded 24 “microgrants” for initiatives at local colleges and universities for the upcoming academic year. 

First Folio Tour
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, the Folger Shakespeare Library sent 18 of its First Folios on a yearlong tour to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. This traveling exhibition, First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare (Jan 4, 2016 – Jan 8, 2017), was seen by more than half a million people at public libraries, universities, museums, a historical society, and a theater. When the First Folios returned home, the Folger mounted an exhibition First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour (Nov 19, 2016 – Jan 22, 2017), that chronicled the books’ travels and celebrations of Shakespeare by American communities.

Theater Partnership Program

As part of our commitment to building greater connections to Shakespeare and the humanities, the Folger has developed a theater partnership program that stretches across the United States, from Utah to New York City, Alabama to Seattle. It launched as a pilot program in fall 2015 and has expanded to 40 partner theaters, reaching an audience of over 2 million ticket buyers. The program helps theater partners deepen relationships with their current members and audiences and inspire and engage new audiences by connecting them to the resources, programs, and collections of the Folger—and to the work of festivals, theaters, and organizations all over the country.

Meet our Theater Partners