“I enclose the ‘Sculptured Scenes from Shakespeare’,” wrote Beverly Hard, “which I hope you will enjoy.” It was 3 May, 1960, and she was writing by hand a thank you note to a friend for inviting her to a luncheon. Her husband, Frederick Hard, was a Shakespearean scholar and president of Scripps College, and she used his presidential stationary for her note. In 1959 he had written for the Folger Shakespeare Library a thirty-page booklet about the sculptures on the front of the library.
When in 1932 the Folger Shakespeare Library had its official opening, among the honored guests were President Herbert Hoover and his wife. Both were professional mining engineers, and in 1912 they translated from Latin into English a sixteenth-century text on mining, De Re Metallica, by Georg Bauer, writing under the name Georgius Agricola. Whether the Hoovers knew that the new library had a copy of their translation is unclear.
Just as the Hoovers shared an interest in Latin and in old books, so did Henry and Emily Folger. Henry Clay Folger came from a distinguished American family: he descended from a brother of Benjamin Franklin’s mother, Abiah Folger, and his uncle, James Folger, hit upon a useful innovation, selling already ground coffee.
After graduating from Amherst College and Columbia Law School, Henry Folger began a fifty-year career with Standard Oil. Between his salary and his investments, he earned enough money to fund his passion for Shakespeareana. In addition to buying eighty-two First Folios of Shakespeare’s works, Folger bought books, maps, musical instruments, furniture, and artwork from Shakespeare’s time.
Daughter of the solicitor in Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Department, Emily (Jordan) Folger was a graduate of Vassar. She earned a master’s degree there, writing her thesis on textual analysis of early editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The Folgers had no children and lived frugally, declining dinner invitations and renting a brownstone in Brooklyn. For most of his career, Henry Folger commuted to his office by streetcar.
In her captivating account of Folger, The Millionaire and the Bard (2015), Andrea Mays put it very well: “[T]he Folger Shakespeare Library is a triumph of American capitalism and philanthropy.” Rather than have his vast collection dispersed upon his death, Folger decided to make it available to researchers and established a national library in Washington, D. C. “To passersby,” wrote Mays, “the exterior would suggest the federal buildings of twentieth-century Washington,” but for people “who ventured inside, the interior would, in an instant, transport visitors back more than three hundred years to Elizabethan or Jacobean England.”
That early 1930s white marble exterior includes nine sculptures, bas reliefs by an Anglo-American sculptor, John Gregory. When hiring Gregory, Henry Folger gave him a list of Shakespearean scenes to be depicted in stone. They represent the range of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies. Taken in order, when viewed from left to right: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Romeo and Juliet; The Merchant of Venice; Macbeth; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Richard III; Hamlet; Henry IV, Part 1.
Of these nine sculptures, Folger saw only King Lear. It conveys the stormy madness of Lear on the blasted heath. According to Abram Belskie, Gregory’s assistant, writing in the summer, 1958, issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, as Folger “gazed long and intensely at it, I heard him say, as if to himself, ‘I shall sleep well tonight’.”
Along with the image of Lear raging on the heath, Folger’s choice of other scenes was fairly predictable. We see Bottom with an ass’s head and Macbeth with the three witches; we see Caesar’s assassination and Falstaff in what Frederick Hard called “the climax of the incomparably comic tavern scene.” Less obvious is seeing Hamlet confronting his mother; Folger opted against the hackneyed image of the melancholy prince holding a skull.
Most intriguing is how Gregory envisioned the tableau Folger selected from Richard III. We see Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and not yet king, with the two young princes, his nephews, welcoming them and inviting them to stay in the Tower of London. In that scene, our eyes focus on what in the play obsessed Richard, the crown. It rests on a table between the princes, while flanking Richard are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Buckingham.
Historically, the scene occurred in the spring of 1483. While the archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Bourchier, was then around eighty, Richard and Buckingham were, respectively, thirty-one and twenty-eight. Oftentimes, such as in Ian McKellan’s riveting film version, setting Richard III in the 1930s, Richard and Buckingham appear to be well into middle age. For his sculpture, Gregory had done his research, and he depicted Bourchier with furrowed brow and a patriarchal beard and Buckingham with athletic vitality and a Roman profile.
For his depiction of Richard’s face, Gregory followed a sixteenth-century oil portrait, but for Richard’s famous scoliosis, Gregory subtly suggested it by having Richard hunch slightly as he leans over the princes. For Shakespeare and his audience, influenced by the writings of Thomas More, Richard’s physical deformity manifested his inner warping. Thanks to Shakespeare’s play, in the popular imagination Richard III has become a villain’s villain, a diabolical madman murdering anyone standing between him and the crown.
As Peter Saccio wrote in Shakespeare’s English Kings, “As myth, the Tudor Richard is indestructible, nor should one try to destroy him.” Although Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time (1951), made a strong case for Richard’s innocence regarding the deaths of the two princes in the Tower, there is no denying he was a decisive man. Maybe something other than political ambition drove important men to follow him, but by late 1483 he had lost the loyalty even of Buckingham.
In 2012 archaeologists in England discovered the mortal remains of Richard III and thereby renewed the controversy over Richard’s reputation. Three years later, after forensic analysis, Richard’s bones received a royal burial in Leicester cathedral. Archbishop Justin Welby presided, and congregants sang a hymn by G. K. Chesterton, “O God of Earth and Altar.” Readings were by the current Duke of Gloucester and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III.
To return to Beverly Hard’s gracious handwritten note: It got tucked inside her gift copy of her husband’s book, and sixty years later book and note ended up in the stock of a used book dealer. From there they joined my shelf of Shakespeareana, all for about the price of two new Folger paperbacks.