Shakespeare for Everyone by Anne Marie

A question we have discussed at length is that of audience: whom is it comprised of, and how should they be reached? As we have seen in examining various editions of Shakespeare’s plays, most editions are geared towards a particular audience, such as performers, scholars, or students. But is it possible to reach all of Shakespeare’s potential audiences at the same time? Taking the Folger Shakespeare Library as a case study, it would seem so. The Folger Library offers resources and opportunities for a wide variety of people, especially scholars, students, and amateur Shakespeare enthusiasts. Since the Folger offers such a variety of resources, one questions is, how effectively does the Library reach these audiences? I would argue that it doesn’t matter. The Library is a kind of Shakespeare Mecca, offering something for everyone but not trying to provide everything for everyone. The Folger Library is evidence that Shakespeare can be for everyone and that his work can foster community.

Home to the world’s largest collection of First Folios as well as an enormous number of rare materials from Early Modern England, the Folger Shakespeare Library has something for everyone, and appreciation of the bard goes beyond the surface of simply reading. There are a number of theatrical productions, especially geared towards encouraging student interest in Shakespeare’s plays by inviting them to be active performers. Various teaching resources, especially the blog posts from various teachers, also emphasize the importance of performing Shakespeare’s work in learning to appreciate it. The insistence on activity is reminiscent of Alan Galey’s article in which he encourages us not to get hung up on final products but rather to focus on “agents who carry out the work.” He is discussing digital scholarly editing, but the idea applies to learning about and appreciating Shakespeare as well. An end product can be useful, but appreciating the process, both the process of creating digital scholarly editions and the process of producing a play, can ultimately lead to more growth and development as well as a deeper understanding of Shakespeare.

Interest in Shakespeare’s work is not only fostered by activity, but also by a sense of community. Dr. Mike Witmore emphasizes that scholars are not the only ones who can be invested in Shakespeare’s work; non-academics also have an opportunity to show their appreciation. In “Shakespeare in the Digital Age,” Witmore explains that when fundraising, he reaches out to non-academic enthusiasts. While it is tempting to be cynical about this arrangement, it is important to remember that there are different ways to be invested in literature and the creation of knowledge. The different funding sources are also reminders that the Library does not only exist for academic work. Scholars can advance our knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and his world, but amateur enthusiasts are crucial in ensuring that this work continues.

The community fostered by the Folger Library is not limited to those in the vicinity of the Library, as there are many digital resources available for free online that can be accessed from anywhere. Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access at the Folger Library, discusses the library’s development of digital projects. He explains that the Digital Media and Publications division is “deploying tools to improve access to collections, form scholarly online communities, and enhance interactions with a vast array of texts.” An example of one of the division’s projects is the collection of Folger Digital Texts, which are available for free download through the library’s website. These texts are available in multiple formats, allowing for their use in a variety of ways. Given the changes in the publishing world, which Galey also discusses, Johnson emphasizes the importance of taking advantage of new opportunities for electronic distribution and collaboration. Digital publications can reach an even wider audience than print publications, and they allow for communication among scholars who might not normally be in contact.

The increasing number of the Folger’s digital resources fits with the trend of increasing numbers of other digital formats and different ways of presenting Shakespeare’s work, from digital scholarly editions of the plays to Shakespeare apps to Gina Bloom’s Play the Knave. But why Shakespeare’s work? Speaking about digital developments, Eric Johnson states that Shakespeare’s works “inevitably move into new media.” The plays’ continuing popularity and familiarity make them easy to adapt to new media. They have endured thus far, so why should they not continue? However, our discussions of these new media and their reviews remind us that there are no perfect Shakespeare resources—there’s always some shortcoming or lack of crucial information, such as the meaning of different kinds of brackets in a digital Shakespeare edition—so the work of updating and adapting his work must continue.

We can see the importance of adapting Shakespeare not just in new performances of his plays, but also in how his original texts are presented. These updates and adaptations are essential for ensuring that Shakespeare’s work is available for everyone, not just in its appeal, but also in its accessibility. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (in movies, for example) are evidence of the stories’ appeal. Making Shakespeare’s works available through digital media ensures that the most recent scholarship is also available. This is evident not only in looking at online journals dedicated to Shakespeare, such as the Folger’s Shakespeare Quarterly, but also in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s work for apps. In Raphael Lyne’s review of The Tempest for iPad, he highlights the advantage of the app format over print editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The possibility of constantly updating apps as soon as new scholarship or new performances appear make them potentially superior to print editions that cannot be updated as frequently and are more expensive to update. The disadvantage of apps or other online resources is that constantly updating them with new scholarship is not feasible, which is why no app like that really exists. It is easier, then, to provide new, innovative, and interesting resources for students and Shakespeare enthusiasts than it is for scholars.

The Folger Library and its huge variety of resources is part of a broader democratization of Shakespeare’s work. The words of Shakespeare can be used and appreciated not just by scholars discovering new meaning and information about Shakespeare’s life, but also rhetorically and artistically. Poetry and drama are not confined to classrooms and theatres but are present in government buildings and at political rallies. Mike Witmore addresses this in his 2015 C-Span interview, specifically discussing the question of why politicians quote Shakespeare and how they use Shakespeare’s words, sometimes without even knowing it. According to Witmore, and as we can see in the various video clips from politicians’ speeches, Shakespeare’s words add weight and heft to political messages and offer a way to connect with an audience. Witmore states that it doesn’t even matter if we can’t understand what the words mean; we can still understand the music and rhythm characteristic of the Shakespeare’s language. But how is this effective, and how does it create a connection between speaker and audience? Witmore posits that Shakespeare is an integral part of our culture, as his work is performed everywhere from the theatre to the Internet. His words have become so much a part of our culture that even if lines from plays are misquoted, we still understand the meaning. In fact, some of the most well-known Shakespeare phrases are misquotations from his plays. As we can see in looking at the dynamic performance history of Shakespeare’s plays as well as the sometimes unexpected places his words appear, Shakespeare’s work has become dispersed and ingrained in our own culture, effectively belonging to everyone.

As scholars and teachers, it is easy to argue for the advantages of democratizing Shakespeare. But in thinking about the limits of our conversation about digital scholarly editing as highlighted by Alan Galey and hearing Mike Witmore discuss misquotations of Shakespeare, I wonder what the potential disadvantages might be. While interviewing Witmore, Brian Lamb brings up the question of whether quoting Shakespeare is elitist. Witmore responds that Shakespeare does offer more down-to-earth language that is more appealing the politicians’ audiences today. It’s true that most people have at least heard of Shakespeare, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that even invoking Shakespeare does not alienate some audience members. The language can be difficult to grasp without study and repetition, which not everyone is interested in, and hearing someone else explain it might not result in increased audience sympathy. In addition, sometimes these explanations are not always correct. In the C-Span interview, there is at least one example of Shakespeare’s meaning being used in a contradictory way, and Witmore diplomatically points out that this strategy is difficult and not always successful. Not only could this potentially alienate audience members who resent Shakespeare’s academic connotations, but it could also alienate those who are more familiar with what the quotations actually mean.

I am also interested in examining the cultural value of Shakespeare’s work. Mike Witmore in particular emphasizes how important Shakespeare is in American culture. Henry Folger established the Library as a gift for the American people, and Witmore says that Shakespeare’s words are “important to American politics” (my emphasis). But the library does not dissociate Shakespeare’s work from his world, Early Modern England. Is the important concept here that Shakespeare’s work is influential in all Anglophone cultures? Does it matter that some of the most well-known phrases we use in the United States come from a British playwright? Located so close to American political buildings, the Folger Library’s presence is a reminder of the close ties between the United States and England, not just culturally, but also politically. The physical presence of the library insists English-ness in an American political space, which starts to feel a bit ironic.

Resources like the ones the Folger offers ensure that learning about and appreciating Shakespeare is open to everyone. There are obvious benefits to studying and appreciating his plays—besides the fact that the stories are enjoyable. In light of the debates about the literary canon that are informed by work in the digital humanities, I wonder if the plays’ ubiquity is limiting us in any way. Is our obsession with Shakespeare eclipsing work from the period that is also important? Are we losing anything by teaching students to equate Early Modern England with one figure? At the moment, Shakespeare is for everyone—but does he need to be?


Works Cited

Galey, Alan. “Five Ways to Improve the Conversation About Digital Scholarly Editing.” Committee on Scholarly Editions. MLA Commons, 1 August 2016. Online.

Henning, Joel. “Shakespeare in the Digital Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Online). New York: NY, Mar 2012. ProQuest.

Lyne, Raphael. “Ariel on screen, Caliban on the iPad.” The Times Literary Supplement. 17 April 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Eric Johnson.” The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger. 23 July 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Michael Witmore.” C-Span. Brian Lamb and Michael Witmore. 29 April 2015. Online.