“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library…” Guarding Shakespeare author Quintin Peterson takes us into the high-security vaults of Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare treasure house

I’ve often jokingly said words to the effect of “Bloody Americans! Nicking all our Folios…” So it amused me greatly that Guarding Shakespeare’s opening scene featured a couple of Brits saying something similar. Have you encountered many English people who really do feel that way?

“I started working for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Department of Safety and Security in December 2010, after I retired from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. In the four years I have worked there, only one British gentleman who visited the library expressed that sentiment. I reminded him that all of the Folger Library’s copies of the First Folio were purchased, not pilfered.”

The next thing I noticed is that your book is virtually a How-To guide to robbing the Folger Library! Do you worry you may have given too much away?

“Not at all. Like all good fiction authors, I mix lies with the truth. Any thief who attempts to use Guarding Shakespeare as a how-to guide to try to rip off the Folger Library is in for a rude awakening. I used the Folger Library as the backdrop for a good old-fashioned heist story, but I didn’t give away the farm. I would never put the library’s security at risk for the sake of a story. I write crime fiction, noir mysteries, thrillers and simply followed the guidelines for creating an entertaining noir heist story. However, this story enlightens as well as entertains.”

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I was reminded of Ian Fleming’s note at the beginning of From Russia With Love, where he mentions the accuracy of his descriptions of people and places. Were all your Folger descriptions real or did you invent some rooms, passageways and so on?

“That certainly is not true of my depiction of the Folger Shakespeare Library, except for the common areas open to the general public. Guarding Shakespeare is part fact, part fancy. Like I said, I mix lies with the truth.”

Apart from the main conspirators, how many of the characters are real Folger people? I noticed you gave yourself a cameo role…

“Characters in the book who have anything to do with the plot are purely fictitious. The rest are actual people the fictional characters either interact with in passing, or who witness the actions of the fictional characters. Fact and fiction collide. It’s also my way of acknowledging coworkers.”

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I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently how important the Folger is as a storehouse of Shakespeare treasures and a centre of study. Your book conveys a sense of it as a place of almost religious significance…

“It is. People from around the globe come to the Folger to either work with rare materials housed there or to appreciate the various exhibitions on display in the Great Hall. One of the best exhibits was Manifold Greatness: The Life and Afterlife of the King James Bible. The exhibit consisted of various King James Bibles – one owned by Queen Elizabeth I, another by Elvis Presley, which he’d acquired from the Estate of Frederick Douglass, et al. And yet always on display in the Great Hall, no matter what exhibit is featured, is one of the Folger’s 82 First Folios. It occurred to me that the two most influential books of the English language were on display together. For the first time, perhaps…”

Another Ian Fleming comparison is the audacious scheme to heist Fort Knox in Goldfinger. Has anyone ever actually succeeded in robbing the Folger in real life?

“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library.”

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I know that real-life criminal gangs are increasingly targeting rare books, but the target in Guarding Shakespeare isn’t actually a book, is it?

“No. Nefarious businessman Rupert Whyte describes the MacGuffin – the object of desire – as something so small, all protagonist Special Police Officer Lt. Norman Blalock need do is put it in his shirt pocket and then just walk out of the Folger Library.”

And it does seem entirely plausible that the Folger could have acquired some amazing Shakespeare items without anyone realising quite what they were…

“Yes. In my novel, the object of desire is hidden inside of a jewelry box the Folger Library recently acquired.”

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You also touch on the frightening idea of what would happen if an unstable employee went berserk in the Folger. It’s a chilling reminder that Shakespeare books and artefacts are vulnerable to vandalism – as well as the kind of cultural terrorism practiced by IS.

“Yes. It’s one of the reasons why the Folger Library has its own Department of Safety and Security, not only to safeguard the collection, but its employees and visitors as well.”

Finally, can you tell us one mind-blowing fact about the Folger that didn’t make it into your book?

“The underground complex of the Folger Shakespeare Library is a bunker. In that bunker along with priceless treasures is the Special Collection, consisting of works of fiction depicting scene(s) inside of the Folger Library or that merely make mention of the library. Guarding Shakespeare is among them. However, it is the only work of fiction that is actually about the Folger Library. My novel has gone where no crime fiction has gone before.

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“On Thursday, 23 April, 2015, I autographed 30 copies of Guarding Shakespeare for the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library’s Board of Governors, and inscribed each book: ‘All the world’s a stage…’

“Coincidentally, 23 April is Shakespeare’s birthday, but it is also the day I retired from the Metropolitan Police Department. D.C., five years ago, after more than 28 years of public service. It was a great day.”

UK readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.

US readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Free Will’ program hands out free tickets to Shakespeare fans in Washington DC

The Tempest
Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has announced an expansion of its ‘Free For All’ program. The new ‘Free Will’ program will see the company give away 1,000 tickets to each of the season’s productions – which averages at an impressively generous 150-200 tickets a week.

Free For all was launched back in the summer of 1991, with The Merry Wives of Windsor performed under the stars for no charge. Over the years a staggering 500,000 audience members have been served with free Shakespeare.

“Our goal has been to offer free Shakespeare productions to as wide of an audience as possible,” says Artistic Director Michael Khan, “and to make it accessible to diverse audiences. People who have never been to the theatre, people who are unable to pay for tickets, young people, students, people on fixed incomes.”

Every Monday at noon tickets are released for the coming week’s performances. Tickets can be claimed at the box office, through the website, or by calling the box office at 202-547-1122.

(Insider tip: calling the box office seems to be best way to claim tickets, as the high number of people attempting to claim tickets overwhelms the website!)

STC’s production of The Tempest (pictured) has recently opened, while As You Like It has just closed. Still to come are the season’s productions of The Metromaniacs, the Macbeth-inspired Dunsinane, Man of La Mancha, and Tartuffe.

Patrons may claim up to 4 tickets per week, but are welcome to take advantage of Free Will more than once.

Check out the Free Will website here.
Check out the Free for All website here.

The Prince and the Passion: in this exclusive interview, actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Prince Hal in Washington DC with the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Matthew Amendt displays a unique passion when talking about his performance as Prince Hal in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent dual presentation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, his longstanding relationship with Prince Hal and Shakespeare being the cause. Amendt first encountered Hal when he was seven years old, and then again in 2009 when, as part of Guthrie Theatre, he performed the title role in their touring production of Henry V. Now, he takes some time to reflect on the great king’s younger persona.

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You started performing Shakespeare at a very young age…
“Well, my mom was an English teacher and needed a prop infant when she was directing shows. I think I played the changeling in A Midsummer’s Night Dream when I was just a wee tot. Ever since then it has just been really present for me and made a lot of sense. I was too young to know any better – that I wasn’t supposed to like it. It wasn’t a popular thing to like Shakespeare.”

What appealed to you about Shakespeare?
“I loved the sweeping grandness of the story and the beauty of the poetry and the power of the verse. All those things really meant a lot to me. I was very young and I just grew into it as I got older. Then I trained at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I was fortunate enough to be taken into the acting company there and worked for ten years on all the great Shakespeare plays.”

Why did you particularly identify with the Hal/Henry character?
“To be honest with you, I am as befuddled about it as anybody. I had some health stuff when I was young and my mom gave me these plays when I was frightened, when I was a frightened sick kid. I think every little kid loves to think that there is a story out there about them, particularly princes and princess and kings and kingdoms, monsters and dragons. I think that the journey that Prince Hal takes to become Henry V and the choices he makes as that king meant a lot to me. That you could make mistakes and come back from them, that you could change, that you weren’t out of the game.

“He just sort of felt like a big brother to me, somebody to take care of me and keep me on the straight and narrow. Of course, as I got older the ambiguity of the plays and the cruelty of all the characters – Hal certainly can be very cruel – came through, and it became more challenging for me. It’s a great story to grow up with and grow into because it’s so deep and broad, and complex. There is something for everybody at every point in their life.”

How did audiences react to this production?
“Well, you know, what’s fascinating about these plays is they exist on such different ends of the spectrum depending on the viewer. I have had people in the audience come up to me and say they have never been able to connect with Hal and how much they admire or enjoyed the work we did in this production with him sort of being a child growing into a man. And I have had audience members come up to me and say ‘That’s not the play for me, you are not my Hal, and I didn’t get any of that.’

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“It’s such a subjective thing. These two poles of honour versus the reality of political machinations – how we move through the world as political animals – anyone who comes in contact with the plays develops their own perspective on that. Maybe that is why it’s popular – not because it is one thing, but because it can be so many for people.

“I think that is really the strength of Michael’s direction in the show that he has been very specific about the acting and the tension and the characters – and been brave enough to let the plays breathe and let people feel the way they feel. I’ve been accosted on the street by people saying I’m their Hal or I am absolutely not their Hal. That’s a really fascinating experience to have lived through. It’s very interesting the way we do battle with each other about what these plays mean to a contemporary audience.”

What, for you, are these plays about?
“They are all about different things, which I think is the beautiful thing. Henry IV, Part 1 is such a coming-of-age story and it’s such a broad sort of summer blockbuster of Shakespeare plays – so much life and vitality and a real struggle for what kind of community we want to be. And Henry IV, Part 2, it’s sort of humble, forlorn. That’s one of the incredible things about these plays – they don’t really exist independently of each other in terms of the plot, but in terms of themes and character they are very different plays. One of these things that is fun to work on is I think you can really feel the playwright wrestling with these questions himself.”

Why is this specific part of history so popular right now?
“I always hate that they are called history plays because it’s not really history. Most of the character relationships are completely fictional. He was certainly inspired by what he read in the Holinshed about the history of England, but Hotspur and Hal never fought. Hotspur was a much older man and Hal was a little more than a child at the Battle of Shrewsbury. I think he was 16. There is an element of them that is a mythic play and I think that’s what audiences are drawn to today.”

What are some of your favourite moments in the plays?
“There are so many. The play-within-a-play with Falstaff in the tavern scene, the rejection and the foreshadowing of that. I love doing that with Stacy [Keach]. Stacy’s delightful to play with in that scene when everybody’s on stage together and you can really feel a live, thrilling sense of danger happening in that bar. Then rejecting Falstaff – ‘I know thee not, old man’ is one of the great scenes in Shakespeare. Two people coming to this impasse in their relationship where what they want or what they would desire if they were free is impossible. It comes to this awful conclusion and I think in our performance that that’s as difficult for Hal as it is for Falstaff. The writing in that bit is beautiful, the shifting of the pronouns from the royal pronoun to the personal pronoun. It’s a much more complicated speech than I gave it credit for.

“And then of course the bedroom scenes with Ed Gero, an incredible actor who is playing an incredible King Henry. When Henry is leaving and the two of them are sort of negotiating everything, it is certainly a contemporary father-son relationship. The ideas of ‘What am I passing on?’ and ‘What have you given me?’ Those scenes are delightful in the way that fathers and sons misunderstand each other.”

Read the full feature on this production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine.

A Photographic Glimpse of Cleopatras Past from Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company

If you enjoyed Tony Howard’s brilliant investigation of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine, here are three more actresses who have tackled this endlessly complex and fascinating role. Thank you to Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC for these archive images.

Click on the images to enlarge and enjoy.

Suzanne Bertish as Cleopatra in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007-2008 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Cleo 2007

Helen Carey as Cleopatra, with Starla Benford as Charmian and Opal Alladin as Iras, in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1996-1997 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Ron Daniels. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Cleo 1996

Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Cleopatra and Gail Grate as Charmian in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1988-1989 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Cleo 1988

More from: Shakespeare Theatre Company

Did you see any of these productions? Which is your favourite portrayal of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on stage or screen? Leave a comment below and let us know.