The power of words seduces every honest writer to do his or her very best to write in a unique way to convey what you want to say and to add to the expressive qualities of language and literature. Only seldom people succeed in achieving immortal fame and enduring influence on a living language. In this post I want to look at an author who conjured up scenes of unforgettable power using the language of his time in ways unheard of. In fact his works were in some periods considered too rough and therefore edited and censored. Together with the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible the works of William Shakespeare still have immeasurable influence on the English language and culture.
Shakespeare’s works have the power to stir our emotions and imagination. Until today his portraits of English kings and their courts influence our views of English history and royal circles. No doubt this year’s commemoration of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616 will bring a flood of activities and events. A few weeks ahead of the central day there is still a chance to look here in a more sober setting at some of the digital initiatives which try to shed new light on one of the greatest people in world literature. At least one of them, an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., focused on lawyers in Shakespeare’s age, but it comes into better relief surrounded by other projects of The Folger, and by a selection of recently launched online Shakespeare projects and digital projects dealing with Early Modern letters.
Surrounded by lawyers
Even without the Shakespeare connection the exhibition Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain is really interesting. The Folger showed the exhibition from September 4, 2015 until January 4, 2016, but luckily there is an accompanying virtual exhibit. The concept for the exhibition was developed in cooperation with the Georgetown Law Library, a library with early printed legal books in its own digital collection. There are four main sections, Legal Lives, The Great Courts, Law and Communities and The King and the Law. In contrast to usual virtual exhibitions it has not been placed in a clearly defined corner or subdomain of the website, but as a seemingly unconnected item on the Folgerpedia, the website of The Folger for general information. More remarkable is the absence of illustrations. It took me some time before reaching the list of exhibitions at this library’s website. You can only applaud the inclusion of transcriptions of several exhibition items, but they yet have to appear for the fourth section. The very heart of the exhibition is an extended introduction to the materials put on show, to be read side-by-side with the list of items.
The four sections of Age of Lawyers give us a good idea of the world of Elizabethan lawyers. The first section looks at legal education, the Inns of Courts and the various legal professions. The various royal courts are the core of the second section. In the third section legal practice comes into view, its impact on daily life and local communities. The last section shows a great variety of subjects around the central theme of royal power, from major figures such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke to subjects as Magna Charta and the influence of English developments on early American law and politics, with for example attention to Thomas Jefferson. The wealth of materials put on show in this virtual exhibition is impressive, and it is even more interesting to see how many of them come from the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In my opinion this virtual exhibition gives you a very valuable introduction to the legal history of England in the decades around 1600.
The Folger is one of the institutions contributing to a major virtual exhibition of documents from and about Shakespeare, Shakespeare Documented. Documents, archival records and manuscripts from such institutions the National Archives (Kew), the Bodleian Library, the British Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – and from a host of other institutions worldwide – make this exhibition into a real gem. It amounts to a digital collection divided in four main categories: playwright, actor and shareholder; poet, family, legal and property records, and his seventeenth-century afterlife. With 186 of the nearly 500 items the category connecting to legal history is the second largest category of this exhibition. More documents and transcriptions will be added this year. You can search at will using a free text search or preset filters. Shakespeare’s involvement as a shareholder is mostly shown in the conflict about The Globe. It is really not feasible to pick here even among the highlights an absolute must. For me this virtual exhibit is a bridge between only reading Shakespeare’s works or searching your way among the vast literature on him. It also is in a very real sense the connection and life thread between the major projects presented here.
Close to the sources
The Folger Shakespeare Library offers more things online worth exploring. Among its latest projects is Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourcing project of The Folger, the Zooniverse project for crowdsourcing and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). One of the objectives of this project is finding words that so far have not been included in the OED. People volunteering to cooperate can choose a genre to transcribe. At first the choice between recipes and letters seems a thing to wonder about, but recipes have not been among the resources used by the founders of the OED. Letters can show words less often used, new uses of words, and, perhaps more importantly for the aim of this post, they might show the impact of literary imagination. An apparent drawback is the lack of an overview of senders and recipients.
Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE) is the Folger’s online adaptation of the printed version of this reference work. It is really a database that helps you to execute queries which you will want to check in the original edition. You can get a closer view of books from this period by looking at the section on bindings of The Folger’s LUNA image database.
Another project is in the development phase. As for now Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has not yet resulted in a separate website. Since 2014 a lot of workshops and events has been organized. You will find the links section particularly useful, with for example an overview by The Folger of links concerning Early Modern English palaeography and digitized manuscripts.
For my brief introductions to some of The Folger’s own digital projects I use the overview in the Folgerpedia. Personally I would prefer to have this overview on the main website of The Folger, but I suppose we are dealing here with a kind of planetary system around it. The Folger has also prepared a dedicated website for Shakespeare’s works, Folger Digital Texts. For quick reference and easy access this collection is very welcome, even though scholars might want to have a version under PhiloLogic or similar linguistic tools. For this you can turn to Early Modern Print, a project of the Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and the Early English Books Online-Text Creative Partnership. You will find here tools to gain insights into changes in word frequencies, KWIC (Key Words In Context) and a N-gram browser. The very example of KWIC in this project shows results for the word slander, which might inspire legal historians, too, to have a look at it. This overview at The Folger of digital projects and tools, even the subscription-only resources most times only accessible at research libraries, is actually a splendid nutshell guide to the study of Renaissance England.
Lives and letters around Shakespeare
If lawyers played such a large role in Shakespeare’s life you will probably want to know more exactly which lawyers, and more generally which people were closest to Shakespeare. On my journeys around the web I found recently the website Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. The aim of this Anglo-American project is collecting and visualizing data which show you the Early Modern social network. After registration you can download data, and also add new data. Everyone can look at the visualizations or relationships. Bacon (1561-1626) was originally also trained as a lawyer. Even if a similar website could already exist for Shakespeare it becomes quickly clear that you can immensely benefit from using this website when researching Shakespeare’s entourage, especially when you fortify your results with the letters of the project for Shakespeare’s World and the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented.
Choosing Bacon is just an example of the many projects dealing with English letters and correspondents. The most generous portal to them is certainly Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 (University College London). Perhaps its main offspring, and certainly one closely connected to the theme of this post, is the project Early Modern Letters Online under the aegis of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where you can search directly in letters written in many countries. Some of the resources at Cultures of Knowledge stem from the Lives and Letters project developed and led by the late Lisa Jardine. Among its projects is the edition of the correspondence of Francis Bacon, the main resource behind Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. For those wanting to look at more online projects dealing with letters the overview at Digitizing Correspondence should quench a lot of your thirst, and you might also contemplate the examples of interfaces for these projects. If you add to this wealth the links page at Cultures of Knowledge you can start to investigate for yourself the epistolary culture of Early Modern Europe. Going back to the subject of this post it is the project for the letters of Edmund Spenser which comes close to the sphere of action of William Shakespeare.
How can one avoid the obvious things around Shakespeare and have a fresh look at him? The Folger has created its own list of quatercentenary online projects. When preparing this post I thought about the manifold activities of another American research library, The Newberry in Chicago. Among nearly fifty online educational resources you might have a look at three virtual exhibitions concerning William Shakespeare, Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare’s Romans: Politics and Ethics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Utopias of the European Renaissance, the last item providing me with a connection to my recent blog post about More’s Utopia.
Instead of going to one of the sections of library websites about their copy of the First Folio, an object for which the label Holy Grail seems almost too simple, it is possible to have a look at digitized First Quartos and to compare various editions. They bring you closer to the times of Shakespeare himself than the posthumous First Folio. However, if you had rather stay with a time-tested resource, there is all reason to visit the section Discover Literature: Shakespeare of the British Library’s website with for example an article by Liza Picard on crime and punishment in Elizabethan England. Andrew Dickson looks at the only existing literary manuscript with Shakespeare’s handwriting, The Booke of Sir Thomas More. The play contains a plea for tolerance towards immigrants, and I cannot help feeling touched by the poignancy of this subject. More was a man for all seasons, and Shakespeare is indeed a writer for all times! The play seems to have been never performed during his life. In the project England’s immigrants 1350-1550: Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages curated by the universities of Sheffield (HRI Online) and York in cooperation with the National Archives at Kew you can find out about 64,000 persons coming to England during two centuries.
The customary Dutch view shown here has in fact figured here in 2013, but without the famous illustration. The image has been used in countless printed publications. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1646), an antiquarian scholar from Utrecht, copied a drawing around 1596 of The Swan theatre in London (Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132 r). In my earlier post where I wrote about Buchelius you can find the links to more digitized manuscripts of this author.
Of course much more can be said, and has already been said this year. Today I looked briefly at the fine aggregator of Early Modern blogs created by Sharon Howard. If you follow her tag for Shakespeare at Early Modern Commons you will find already dozens of celebratory articles. Hopefully you will appreciate the urgent need to restrict myself here to only a few dozen projects. A search for Shakespeare at Early Modern Resources brings us ten online resources mentioning him. No doubt Sharon Howard will soon add a number of the new Shakespeare projects to Early Modern Resources.
However large and inviting the temptation to end here with one of the countless proverbial words of Shakespeare I had rather invite you to look yourself again and again at this writer whose works breathed life into the English language. His imagination both as a playwright and poet is at many turns so powerful that its glow will last as long people care for the right words which do justice to the humanity living in his works.
One of the possible follow-ups to this contribution is looking in more detail at Shakespeare’s plays and the role of law. You can get a taste of this subject by looking at free accessible recent articles in the journals Law and Literature and Law and Humanities.