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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shakespeare in the Digital Age

By Joel Henning

Great Hall, Folger Shakespeare Library
There are 232 surviving First Folios of the works of William Shakespeare, and the world's largest collection of them—82—is not in London, Oxford or anywhere else in England. The volumes are deep in the bowels of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a building tucked in among the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

"Without these Folios, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, 18 of his plays—including 'Macbeth,' 'Julius Caesar,' 'Twelfth Night,' 'The Tempest' and 'As You Like It'—would have been lost," says Michael Witmore, the Folger's director since July, as we tour the underground stacks. "They originally sold for one British pound, worth around $200 present value," he adds. But the price has gone up in the nearly 400 years since. "In 2001," he says, "a single First Folio sold at Christie's for $6.2 million." I gingerly return the Folio I've been holding to its shelf.

I also get to see and handle documents signed by Queen Elizabeth I and Richard Burbage, one of Shakespeare's great actors. Were there time, Mr. Witmore says, we could also have a look at original papers and manuscripts of John Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, among others. The Folger has "the third-largest collection of early English books and manuscripts anywhere in the world," he notes, surpassed only by those of the British Library in London and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

Mr. Witmore was previously a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, and before that an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. Paul Ruxin, chairman of the Folger's board of governors, says that Mr. Witmore, 44, was recruited because he is "the leading Shakespearean scholar of his generation," but notes that the new director has "also brought astonishing energy and enthusiasm to the library." That's clearly reflected in Mr. Witmore's delight at showing me not only the vaults but also other elements of this extraordinary gift to the nation, bestowed by Henry Clay Folger, chairman of Standard Oil of New York, and his wife, Emily. It opened in 1932 on land originally planned for an expansion of the Library of Congress. Today, the Folger has an annual budget of $16 million and a staff of about 100.

It is not only a world-class research center focused on Shakespeare and the Renaissance, but also a conservation lab for preserving rare materials, with a theater offering plays by Shakespeare and others. (Its next production is "The Taming of the Shrew.") The Folger also offers concerts, exhibitions and programs for K-12 schools and colleges. "Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700," runs through May 20.

"We are unique because we are able to tell the whole story of the humanities from the rare documents and source materials that inspire scholars and teachers all the way to artistic performances that bring these materials to life," Mr. Witmore says. The Library also publishes with Simon & Schuster one of the most widely used editions of Shakespeare's plays. They are currently being released in e-book editions with the same explanatory notes, scene summaries, illustrations and other features as in the print versions. "This connects people to the archival assets that we have here at Folger," he says, adding that one of his priorities now is continuing the digitization of the collection.

"Once we digitize the collection, a scholar in Jaipur, India, can use our resources as easily as scholars sitting in our reading room. We already have 50,000 high-quality digital images of our books and art works," he says.

"With the artist-photographer Rosamond Purcell I did a book called 'Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections From Shakespeare,' which mixed a new photographic technique with an exploration of Shakespeare's language. Working with an artist really broadened my sense of what you can do beyond a scholar's knowledge. Artists provide us with another vital way into the world of Shakespeare and his contemporaries."

Mr. Witmore is enjoying some aspects of the job that he thought he would like the least. "We've begun a strategic planning exercise. The basic question of how to set priorities seems completely relevant to the current state of the humanities." And while "most academics steer clear of fund-raising, I look at it as an opportunity to make our case to people who not only want to hear it but are willing to support it. The number of nonacademics with a deep interest in the Renaissance and Shakespeare is enormous, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be speaking directly to them."

But Mr. Witmore is not turning his back on his scholarly interests. His last academic home, the University of Wisconsin, is a hotbed of the digital humanities movement. And according to Mr. Ruxin, Mr. Witmore "is one of the leading pioneers of data mining of Shakespeare." Data mining, Mr. Witmore says, is "where you count a bunch of features in a text or a molecular element, or who is buying a product. Marketers use it to target audiences and analyze web content, but we can use the same techniques to analyze the First Folio."

Using a software tool called Docuscope, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, and working with his collaborator, Jonathan Hope of Strathclyde University in Glasgow, he processed 767 different thousand-word excerpts of Shakespeare's plays in 2009 and found that Shakespeare's vocabulary and syntax vary significantly among his comedies, historical plays and tragedies.

One of his discoveries is that, in linguistic terms, "'Othello' uses some of the dance steps of Shakespeare's comedies. We have an intense dialogue between Othello and Iago dancing around a subject, like the language of courtship, but it's really a perverse seduction of Othello by his lieutenant. Shakespeare knew he could do more with tragedy by building it on a comic foundation. He emotionally lures you in one direction but puts a perverse and new end to it, which is one of the reasons that 'Othello' is such a devastating play. The play does all the things that comedy does, but then caps it off with a critical mistake and a fatal deception."

The year 2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and 2023 the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio. "I hope this collection is still around for another 400 years," Mr. Witmore concludes as we say good-bye, "and I'm convinced that by using modern technology to dig deeper, we will learn many new and important things in the next 400 years."

Mr. Henning writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.

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