The Wonder of Will: Exhibitions

Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare

The world’s largest Shakespeare collection was on display during The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare. Exhibitions at the Folger, on the road, and online created rich opportunities for visitors to see rare artifacts for themselves and learn more about Shakespeare’s influence and legacy.

At the Folger, Shakespeare, Life of an Icon kicked off a year of extraordinary exhibitions. America’s Shakespeare, which explored Shakespeare’s influence on American culture and history, attracted families on vacation as well as Capitol Hill neighbors during the city’s peak tourist season. Transformed, the exhibition later appeared in Los Angeles as America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West at the LA Public Library. More than half a million people in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC, connected with the Folger’s First Folio tour and New York theatergoers flocked to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Shakespeare quartos and promptbooks from the Folger during the RSC's King and Country residency. Online, users from around the globe have interacted with Shakespeare Documented, a digital exhibition of primary-source materials documenting Shakespeare’s life.

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, where it was hosted at Gallaudet University. 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.

Explore the First Folio Tour  |  Behind the Scenes with the First Folio Tour  |  First Folio Tour trailer

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

The Folger exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon (Jan 20 – Mar 27, 2016) brought together 50 of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare's life and career, some on public display for the first time. An animated ceiling installation reflected on themes within Shakespeare’s life and work, magically weaving texts, patterns, and manuscripts. The exhibition, curated by Folger curator of manuscripts Heather Wolfe, featured Folger collection items as well as loans from the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, the British Library, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The National Archives UK, and others. 

Watch the time-lapse video of the exhibition installation

The Folger also partnered with these institutions (and 40 others) to launch a companion online resource, Shakespeare Documented, the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting Shakespeare’s life. Nearly 500 references, found in roughly 400 print and manuscript documents, provide a rich portrait of Shakespeare in his personal and professional spheres. 

In June 2016, The New York Times reported a major discovery Wolfe made during her preparations for Shakespeare Documented and Life of an Icon: previously unknown depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms. These documents cast new light on Shakespeare’s status as a gentleman-writer, but also affirm existing understandings of his identity as both the famous playwright and the man from Stratford.

Learn more about Wolfe's discovery

King and Country: Treasures from the Folger

The Folger partnered with Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York to present an exhibition to accompany the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances of King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings (Mar 24 – May 1, 2016), an epic cycle of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II, and Henry V. The exhibition enabled 30,000 theatergoers at BAM to see rare Shakespeare quartos, promptbooks, and costume designs from the Folger collection.

America’s Shakespeare

America’s Shakespeare, curated by Georgianna Ziegler, Folger associate librarian and head of reference, traced Shakespeare’s extraordinary influence on America’s history and culture with rare letters, costumes, books, and film clips (Apr 7 – Jul 24, 2016). It showed how Shakespeare's language reached far and wide as the nation developed, from its use by Abigail Adams and Abraham Lincoln and its adaptation by immigrant and African American theaters, to West Side Story, television sit-coms, and online advertisements. The exhibition featured a newly discovered volume which listed the books owned by a late 17th-century Virginian including a Shakespeare Second Folio, one of the earliest documented in the New World. 

Explore America's Shakespeare through our blog series

Will & Jane

The Folger exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity (Aug 6 – Nov 6, 2016), curated by Janine Barchas (University of Texas Austin) and Kristina Straub (Carnegie Mellon), took a close look at these two celebrated authors’ literary afterlives—and found some surprising parallels. The exhibition, whose opening was the largest in Folger history, included a manuscript in Austen’s own hand, actress Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, and a costume worn by Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. “The Shirt” grabbed headlines in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and a score of other publications.

Read the Will & Jane blog post series  |  Watch the trailer

Exhibition-goers in the fall could see Sense & Sensibility on the Folger stage and attend Yale professor Joseph Roach’s October talk about Shakespeare and Austen’s literary celebrity as part of the Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series. The Folger also hosted Austen devotees in town for the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).

America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West

The Folger's spring 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, curated by Stephen Dickey of UCLA, with Georgianna Ziegler, added items that highlighted Shakespeare’s legacy in California, from gold mining camps to the early film industry.

Listen to a podcast interview with exhibition curator Stephen Dickey

First Folio! Shakespeare's American Tour

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, the Folger sent First Folios to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. First Folio! Shakespeare's American Tour (Nov 19, 2016 – Jan 22, 2017) celebrated their return to the Folger, and was the largest ever display of First Folios in a single venue. Each of the First Folio travelers on display in the exhibition was opened to the title page of one of these 18 plays, and the exhibition shared photos and stories from each of the tour stops. A textile map, created by artist Carrie Roy from wool and mulberry silk, traced the First Folios’ travel paths. The exhibition was curated by Public Engagement Coordinator Maribeth Cote, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints Caroline Duroselle-Melish, and Heather Wolfe.

Watch a video about our experiences touring the First Folio