Q&A with Andrea Mays on a Business Magnate’s Obsession with the Book That Gave us Shakespeare

Folger Shakespeare Library’s national traveling exhibition First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, currently being presented at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, features a large-size volume of the first authorized collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Printed in 1623, only about a third of the original 750 copy run survives, and 82 of those surviving copies were collected by business magnate and Shakespeare enthusiast Henry Folger.

Henry Folger worked for John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company, and later served as president and chairman of Standard Oil of New York. He was an avid collector of all things Shakespeare, which led him to establish the Folger Shakespeare Library along with his wife Emily. The Folger Shakespeare Library, located in Washington, D.C., is the world’s largest collection of the printed works of William Shakespeare. The Folger operates not only as a research institution, but also as a public gallery, museum and theater.

Author Andrea Mays details Folger’s lifelong obsession with the First Folio in her book The Millionaire and the Bard. As part of the exhibition, Mays will be coming to FIU Feb. 24 and 25 to talk about Shakespeare, Henry Folger and the First Folio. She graciously sat down to chat with FIU News beforehand.

Your book touches on so many different topics – the psychology of collectors, historical scavenger hunts, bookbinding techniques and practices. How did you approach research? I imagine you to have emulated the Folgers’ meticulous note-taking skills.

I started this project about six years ago, and at that time the Folger Shakespeare Library did not allow you to take photographs, so everything I read, I had to transcribe. Luckily, everything today can be stored on the computer.

You mentioned the Folger Shakespeare Library. What was it like to conduct research there?

Before I began my research, I knew a little about the library – I had read about it, and was familiar with its publishing arm. But you can’t imagine what’s there, beyond the parts open to the public, because of the sheer volume of stuff. It’s not chaotic – things are protected in climate and humidity-controlled vaults, but the volume is just impossible to comprehend. There are sculptures in every nook and cranny; for example, when you go down the back stairway, stuck in one corner is a valuable sculpture of Shakespeare. The more you see, the more you realize how much more there is to see. Paintings, shelves of porcelain, furniture, carpets. It’s a labyrinth.

You’ve said in other interviews that you know more than a few book collectors personally, including your husband. How did that knowledge help your story?

That was my way into Henry Folger. Who was this person? He ran one of the biggest companies in the world during the day, and then he would go home and page through catalogs with his wife. Henry didn’t leave behind a lot of personal correspondence, except for what he wrote in college. So what was the thread that should run through the narrative? He has what my friends have, my husband has, an obsession. It’s always about the next acquisition; you think, “that one is signed” or “that one is in a better condition.”  The collection is never complete. Henry collected right up into the end. Knowing some obsessed collectors helped me understand more that this wasn’t just another collector, it was an obsession.

If you could ask Henry and Emily Folger one question, what would it be?

I would ask them, if the library was on fire, what one object would they run out with? I think I know Henry’s answer. He’d probably choose the Pavier Quarto, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays that predated the First Folio, which is what he chose to hold for the oil portrait of himself for the Library. But I would love to know what Emily would have chosen.

One of the most striking aspects of your book is the photo of Folger’s collection of 82 surviving copies of the First Folio. What was that moment like for you?

Isn’t that beautiful? It came about very quickly. I wasn’t there to look at the Folios, because a friend who was also a reader there said I shouldn’t ask to see them all too early on. I talked to the librarian at the time about looking at the Titus Andronicus quarto, and he took me to the vault. It was magnificent to see them all together. There haven’t been so many copies together since they were sitting in the publishing house almost 400 years ago.

The Folio currently on display at the Frost Art Museum until Feb. 28 is open to the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet — one of the most quoted selection of words ever written. What passage do you think Folger would have selected?

I know he was fond of The Merchant of Venice, and had written a paper on Shylock, the play’s principal antagonist, so perhaps the “quality of mercy” soliloquy.

OK, so visitors have seen the First Folio, and now they want to read a Shakespeare play for the first time ever. What do you recommend?

I’d go with The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s easily understood, fun, interesting, and modern – you will see yourself in the characters. It’s a play that demonstrates Shakespeare is not boring or incomprehensible.

Now, if they want to watch a Shakespeare adaptation, David Tennant’s Hamlet is magnificent. He was so good! Or, if they like musicals, Kiss Me Kate is a Cole Porter musical based on Taming of the Shrew, another play that would have been lost without the First Folio. It’s brilliant and clever, with great lyrics.

What do you hope visitors to the Folio at FIU will take away from the experience?

First, I hope they will enjoy the experience of just seeing the book itself. This is an object that collectors will pay millions for, and that doesn’t happen very often (Audobon, Gutenberg Bible). Far more importantly, I want them to appreciate its significance. Had this book not been published, half of Shakespeare’s plays would have arguably disappeared into the ash heap of history, which is the average survival rate of plays from the Elizabethan/Jacobean era.

There would be no Macbeth, no Tempest, no Julius Ceasar. As literature, it’s unbelievable to think they would have disappeared. As contributors to the English language, we would never fight green-eyed monsters or reminisce about salad days, phrases which come from Antony and Cleopatra.

For more information on Mays’ visit or to RSVP, contact Ashley Garcia at 305.348.6269 or asnigarc@fiu.edu.

This event is part of FIU programming scheduled around the Folger Shakespeare Library’s national traveling exhibition First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare. First Folio at FIU is presented by the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, and FIU Libraries. First Folio at FIU sponsors include the College of Architecture + The Arts, FIU Foundation, Inc., Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Margarita P. Muiña, J.D., L.L.M., The Betsy-South Beach, Blue Martini, British American Business Council Miami, Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation, and Miami City Social. Learn more at folio.fiu.edu.

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