A Rare Look at Shakespeare's First Edition at DC's Folger Library

A glimpse at the priceless collection of first edition Shakespeare works.

June 14, 2015, 12:47 PM

WASHINGTON — -- William Shakespeare died nearly 400 years ago, but he's still trending.

Every 11 minutes, a new article is being written about him. On Google, his name returns more than 647 million results.

And soon, American literary buffs in all 50 states will get a chance to experience The Bard like they never have before.

A little-known literary treasure trove -- the world's largest collection of first-edition Shakespeare plays -- will emerge from a highly-fortified secret bunker deep underground just steps from the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to 82 of the 233 surviving First Folios is sending them out on a national tour to mark the quadricentennial of his death.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl was granted exclusive access to the Folger vault, where he got an up-close look at the books, rarely seen in public.

"This is a long lasting book," library director Michael Witmore said of the the First Folio. "There's a little great line in here, the two men who published it said, 'Now the book's out. You can read it. You can make your own judgments about whether it's any good. Do that, but buy it first.'"

The collection of Shakespeare's works dates back to 1623, seven years after his death, when two of Shakespeare's actors compiled 36 of his plays in an effort to preserve them for future generations.

If not for the Folio, popular works like "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night," and "The Comedy of Errors" may never have made it onto our bookshelves. It provides valuable clues that might otherwise be unknown to us, for instance, what scholars and historians think Shakespeare most probably looked like.

"People who knew him, worked with him said he looked like this," said Witmore, referring to one of the only known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare, printed on the Folio's first page. "This is the picture that we think really captures the man, and this is the picture you see everywhere. This is his headshot."

First Folios are incredibly valuable. The most recent complete copy sold at auction went for more than $6 million, according to Witmore.

The library houses other priceless pieces of history, including one of Queen Elizabeth's Bibles, the deed to Shakespeare's house, and even Walt Whitman's personal copy of Shakespeare's poetry.

All are kept in a climate-controlled vault deep underground for preservation. But Witmore said the precious volumes are less fragile than they may seem.

"You can handle it," he told ABC News, lifting up one of the books. "It's made out of rag paper, that means people took clothing, pulped it up and made the paper, and this paper is stronger."

Next year's tour will give people across the country a chance to get a firsthand look at the Bard's words, even if they won't be able to touch the pages.

Shakespeare's timeless plays continue to inspire -- whether you last heard them in the classroom -- or are surrounded by them every day.

"I am stunned every time I see a First Folio, because of how powerful and important this book is. This is a book that brought to us some of the most important plays and poetry that have ever been written," Witmore said.

"You see phrases and ideas and characters that you think about all the time," he said. "And they're here."