By Gail Kern Paster
Beyond adding to and conserving our magnificent collection of Shakespeare and early modern English printed books and manuscripts, the Folger mission has been to make the collection publicly accessible in a variety of ways. This is the heartfelt rationale for all our public programs, including exhibitions, educational programs and the performing arts.
Yet to me, one of the most powerful tools for fulfilling the Folger mission is the New Folger Library editions, splendidly edited by Head of Academic Programs Barbara Mowat and Professor Paul Werstine, of the University of Western Ontario. If you have a high school son or daughter reading Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth in school, it’s likely you have seen these small, inexpensive, mass-market paperbacks. Begun in 1992 with the release of six editions (Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew), quickly followed by four more in 1993, and due to be completed in 2010 with Henry VI Part 3, the Folger Shakespeare Library editions outsell all other single-play Shakespeare editions combined and last year alone earned more than $200,000 in royalty income for Folger coffers. Everyone here is enormously proud, of course, of the editions’ commercial success. But I am even prouder of their excellence and of the major part they play in expressing how the riches of our collection can be used for broad public education.
Because we have the original texts of Shakespeare’s plays in our uniquely rich Folio and quarto holdings, editors Mowat and Werstine can begin their editorial labors by looking at the originals and can consult them frequently throughout the painstaking process of deciding between variant readings, modernizing spelling and punctuation, annotating and glossing obscure words and phrases. But the format of these editions is also brilliant, since (unlike most other Shakespeare editions) the text is to be found on the right-hand side of the page only, with scene synopses and explanatory glosses on the facing, left-hand side. Students—and actors, too!—find this format appealing and enormously convenient. Best of all, the left-hand pages are sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations from rare materials in the collection. We have found that students regard the illustrations as often the most helpful devices for making them understand clearly and succinctly what Shakespeare’s words mean. Otherwise obscure references to Elizabethan pastimes such as bear-baiting, morris dances or swordplay are easily illustrated from the collection, as are diagrams of the Ptolemaic universe, famous buildings, Elizabethan fashions (such as Malvolio’s famous cross-gartered stockings or the cockle hats of pilgrims) and unfamiliar objects, such as pouncet-boxes or racks for torturing prisoners. The classical gods and goddesses—often behaving scandalously—make regular appearances in these pages, as do mythological beasts like the phoenix, basilisk or griffin. It is harder to illustrate Elizabeth proverbs, Aesopian fables or esoteric beliefs, but the editors try valiantly, for example, by picturing Fortune’s wheel or the salamander who lives in fire.
In these scrupulously edited, bountifully illustrated texts, the Folger collection is put to use for thousands of schoolchildren for many years to come. I can think of no clearer way to demonstrate how the holdings of this library become an invaluable resource with wide public importance. As long as Shakespeare’s words are read and valued— and the prospects for his ongoing significance seem strong, despite the dire warnings of some in the culture wars—the Folger editions will represent a high water mark of achievement, not only for their editors, but also for the Folger Library as an indispensable cultural institution.