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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

The new main exhibition hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2024.

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The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection — is emerging from a four-year metamorphosis that has left it almost entirely transformed — new museum spaces, new leadership announced, new programming outreach.

After years of being available only to scholars, the jewels of the library’s collection — 82 copies of Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” printed 400 years ago — will now be together on public display for the first time.

We got a behind-the-scenes sneak peek to look at how the Folger is reaching out to new audiences.

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Shakespeare and the classics in Chocolate City

So much has changed at the Folger Shakespeare Library since it closed for renovations in January 2020, that it makes sense that the show reopening its performance space is called Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s epic Roman poem is all about change, and Karen Ann Daniels, who directs programming for the Folger and is artistic director of its theater, sensed that it could speak to underserved audiences in D.C. if the Folger Theatre did it right.

“The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of D.C.,” she said. “I’m totally thinking Chocolate City. That’s really where my idea came from.”

Her idea was to do the play with an all-Black cast, a notion director Psalmayene 24 wasn’t sure he was on board with until Memphis police officers fatally injured Tyre Nichols, a Black FedEx employee, last year during a traffic stop. The director said he worked through his grief at the incident by incorporating elements of the Black diaspora into Metamorphoses to celebrate Black humanity.

Artistic Director of the Folger Theatre Karen Ann Daniels at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on  June 14, 2024.

”The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of DC,” said Folger Theatre Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels, shown here in the Folger’s performance space on June 14, 2024.

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“So in some ways this play is a response to America’s own proclivity for lethal anti-Blackness,” he said. “And when you do a show like this at a place like Folger, it says something about how not only Folger Theatre is changing, but how American culture is changing, how D.C. is changing, and how universal the stories that pass through this theater actually are. These stories are for everyone, and can be told in many different ways.”

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The librarian has a favorite First Folio. It’s not the fanciest one.

A huge display case in the middle of the library’s new exhibition space glows softly, quietly announcing that it contains the Library’s crown jewel: 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio printed in 1623 — more than a third of all the copies that are known to exist.

The First Folio marked the first time, just a few years after Shakespeare’s death, that his works were collected into a single volume, which makes it a benchmark for scholars. But no two of the copies collected by Henry and Emily Folger in their lifetime look the same. Some are skinny, others massive.

The main exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library

One of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 82 copies of the First Folio, the Bard’s complete works printed in 1623, just a few years after his death.

Jared Soares for NPR


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“These were all printed in 1623,” confirmed Folger librarian and director of collections Greg Prickman, “in the printshop of William Jaggard and his son Isaac, but over the intervening 400 years a whole lot has happened to these books. Sometimes they get damaged and parts are removed. Sometimes parts are added from other copies.”

Asked if he has a favorite, he headed to the far right side of the display case, past Folios prettily bound in leather with gold tooling.

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“The one that I like the most is #30 — the only copy in this collection that has the original binding that was put on when this book was first purchased, not long after it was printed.

“So, if you wanted to see, ‘What does Shakespeare’s First Folio look like when it was just another quote-unquote new book?’ that’s the copy that you’re gonna be looking at, is #30.”

A sampler of Shakespearean insults

To the right of the main display case, there’s a smaller interactive display that lets you create a Shakespearean conversation. We only spent a few moments with it, but the display makes its own selections from phrases in the Bard’s plays once you choose a category — perhaps “blessing” (“You have been nobly born”) or “burning” (“Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee”).

We only played with it for a few minutes, but we note that the plays contain a full complement of Shakespearean insults, so in theory, it could have you spouting such Elizabethan invective as:

“Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant.” (Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, scene 3)

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“I am sick when I do look on thee.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, scene 1)

“I must tell you friendly in your ear, Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.” (As You Like It, Act 3, scene 5)

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” (Coriolanus, Act 2, scene 1)

“The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, scene 5)

“And thou unfit for any place but hell.” (Richard III, Act 1 scene 2)

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“Villain, I have done thy mother.” (Titus Andronicus, Act 4, scene 2)

“Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!” (Timon of Athens, Act 4, scene 3)

The Mulberry Conundrum

The exhibition space has lots of rare manuscripts in a room called “Out of the Vault,” which of course made us wonder what else is in “the vault,” which is not open to the public. So we asked, and were led down a staircase to an imposing, steel, bank-vault door, behind which lie the refrigerated (“because that makes the books happy”) library stacks containing the quarter of a million other volumes in the Folger’s collection.

There are also 100,000 objects down here, ranging from paintings of the Bard, to props, costumes, models and “pieces of the tree,” said Prickman, enigmatically.

Folger Shakespeare Library Director of Programming and Exhibitions Greg Prickman outside the main exhibition hall.

Librarian Greg Prickman is the Folger’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions.

Jared Soares/Jared Soares for NPR

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“The mulberry tree,” he continued when pressed. “’Objects associated with Shakespearean legends’ is probably the best way to put it. I’m not the one to tell this story.”

So we looked it up.

Shakespeare allegedly planted a mulberry tree at his home in Stratford. More than a century later in the 1750s, the home’s then-owner, Rev. Francis Gastrell, got so tired of people asking to see it that he chopped it down, and local entrepreneur Thomas Sharpe bought the wood and had it crafted into Shakespearean souvenirs — everything from a carved casket that was presented to actor David Garrick (1717-1779), to snuff boxes and medallions.

So many items were created that they pretty clearly didn’t all come from one tree, but the Folger has some.

Why the Folgers placed a bet on the Humanities

The impulse to reach a more universal audience is what led Folger Library director Michael Witmore to spearhead the library’s $80.5M rethink — a wholesale “metamorphosis,” if you will, of a building and a mission that had been, frankly, functioning quite well.

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“For the first part of the Folger’s existence, it was primarily a research library,” said Witmore, “serving scholars who were studying everything from animal husbandry to lyric poetry to theater. But we have the facilities and collection to do more, and this renovation allows us to take a world-class research library and surround it with a cultural institution that is a destination.”

A destination in the service of words written more than 400 years ago. Words that are also available digitally — “we digitize in order to create access, said Prickman, “and we exhibit materials in order to create access. The originals remain.”

And the presence of those originals just down the block from the Library of Congress, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court, was a big part of the intention of Henry and Emily Folger, said Witmore.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

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“We need these words and these stories to elevate our sense of what’s possible as citizens. When you think about what happens in the Capitol, which is where words — you may not agree with them, you may think they’re funny or shallow — but it’s where words really matter. Including when the court is looking at what those words mean.

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“So to put a Shakespeare library where his works are being performed, and where people are working through the poems and other things, right in this spot I think is a big bet on the importance of the humanities and the arts in a functioning democracy.”

Story edited and field produced by Jennifer Vanasco. Broadcast story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates
A lack of visibility for the second half of the year beyond the easing of comparative figures — as the Chinese post-pandemic lockdown bounce tapered off a year ago — is unlikely to improve investor sentiment regarding the high end sector, Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet said in an emailed note to clients.
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Expert on dictators warns: Don't lose hope — that's what they want

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Expert on dictators warns: Don't lose hope — that's what they want

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a meeting in Beijing on Oct. 18, 2023.

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When we think of dictators, often the image that comes to mind is of a lone strongman, whose main concern is holding power within his own borders. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum says today’s dictators are actually working together in a global fight to dismantle democracy.

In her new book, Autocracy, Inc.: The Dictators Who Want to Run the World, Applebaum describes a “network of convenience” that exists among various autocratic states, including Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela among others.

“There isn’t a secret room like in a James Bond movie where all the leaders meet; it’s not like that,” she says. “It’s like a big corporation that has different companies, and each company does its own thing, but they have loose ties, and they cooperate when it’s convenient.”

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Applebaum says alliances among the global autocracy center on issues of military influence, kleptocracy and defeating democracy — and she sees a link between former President Donald Trump these concerns.

“Simply being someone who’s interested in using foreign policy to make money for oneself. I mean, that already makes Trump similar to a lot of Central Asian leaders or Africans, not to mention Putin,” she says.

Looking forward, Applebaum says she hopes her book helps re-engage people who may have become cynical by the political process. “What the autocrats — whether they’re in American politics or in Russian politics or in Chinese politics — what they want is for you to be disengaged. They want you to drop out,” she says. “I want people to be convinced that ideas matter, that we’re going to have to defend and protect our political system if we want to keep it.”

Autocracy, Inc.

Autocracy, Inc.

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Interview highlights

On how the Russian war in Ukraine is a war between autocracy and democratic world

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In the last few years, [Putin] had begun talking about the end of the democratic world or the end of Democratic dominance. … The war was an attempt to show that he doesn’t care anymore about the world that was created in 1945. He doesn’t care about the UN charter. He doesn’t care about UN documents and organizations that use the language of human rights. He doesn’t care about the so-called unspoken rule or unwritten rule that we don’t change borders in Europe by force. … He’s going to show that NATO is powerless, that it’s a paper tiger, and that none of the international institutions can control him because he stands for a new order and a new future. And he has used that language. And his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, specifically said this war is about a new world order.

On how Putin set the example for leaders to use money to gain power

In my view, the rise of these new forms of autocracy were made possible by the nature of modern financial transactions. If you look closely at the rise of Putin … he began essentially by stealing money. He stole money from the city of St. Petersburg. He took it out of the country. He laundered it through Western institutions, brought it back in, and he and others, mostly in the former KGB who were doing this, eventually enrich themselves. And they enrich themselves using Western partners, Western companies, connections to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

They were enabled in this process by Western financial institutions — German, European, American. And, first of all, that gave them a certain cynicism about the Western world. So, “OK, you guys talk about democracy and transparency, but you’re perfectly willing to help us steal.” … You can see modern dictators also beginning to learn this, also beginning to understand they can use tax havens or they can filter their money through Western banks so that there are different ways of stealing and hiding money. And it’s become something that people imitate really around the world.

On what she calls “information laundering”

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I should start by saying that the autocratic world takes ideas very seriously and takes information seriously, and thinks a lot about how to get their message not just to us, but to Africa, to Latin America, to other countries around the world. They invest in it heavily. The Chinese have invested in a huge network of television and radio and website and newspaper and other forms of broadcasting in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia and elsewhere. They have content-sharing agreements with different newspapers around the world. Their wire service, Xinhua, is very cheap and easy to get hold of, very often cheaper than AP or Reuters. And they also think about how they can get information to people, in a way that they accept.

They have an idea that you want information to seem native, that it will seem local. And so they would rather have an African newspaper write something positive about China or write something negative about America, rather than it coming from a Chinese source. And the Russians in particular, have enthusiastically run with that idea. And they have also begun pretty systematically to create websites, newspapers and other forms of media that look like they are Ecuadorian or Peruvian or they’re in Arabic, or they’re in French. … And they look native. They’re using local languages, but they rely on, as I said, on Russian narratives and especially on these authoritarian narratives about how about the degeneracy and decline of America in the West, about the superiority of autocratic states.

On an autocratic strategy that relies on lies to control the political narrative

Trump began his presidency with a lie about how many people had appeared on the National Mall for his inauguration. … It was a very stupid lie. I mean, who cares how many people were in the National Mall? But he wanted the U.S. Park Service to lie about it, and he wanted his press spokesman to lie about it. And again, that was partly to show who’s in control here? I’m in control, and I get to decide what the truth is. And it’s also to confuse people and alienate them from politics. I mean, during the Trump administration, we spent a lot of time arguing about what was true and what wasn’t. …

Constant lies also create this kind of cynicism and apathy. It’s a way of keeping people out of politics and preventing civic engagement. I mean, a lot of these authoritarian states know that … [the] biggest threat to their power is their own people. And so their goal is to prevent people from ever organizing, from ever being engaged, from ever caring at all. And one of the ways they do that is through this constant stream of lies that make people feel like they’re simply unable to know anymore what’s true and what’s not.

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On how political arguments went from policy to culture wars

The way we did politics even 10 years ago, which was we argued about real things. Right? We argued about health care. We argued about infrastructure investment. … So that was the stuff that politics was supposed to be about once. Politics isn’t about that anymore. Once it’s about existential questions and identity, and once it’s only culture wars which are easily exaggerated …. then you’re in the realm where it’s much easier for demagogues and for people who are good at evoking and creating emotion to win arguments. And I think it just took a long time for the opposition forces to understand how this works.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

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