Michael Witmore, the seventh and current director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which holds the world’s largest collection of the playwright’s works, connected William Shakespeare’s plays to civil society in his Wednesday Lowell Humanity Series lecture.
Henry Folger, a collector of Shakespearean plays, established the library, which has over 260,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts, and 9,000 additional works of art, in 1932.
“It was clear that Mr. and Mrs. Folger had an asset of enormous value, which they planned to pass along as a gift to the American people,” Witmore said. “The press estimated that the number of volumes in the collection was 20,000 upon opening.”
Now, historians understand that the press had grossly misunderestimated the size of Folger’s collection, according to Witmore, who said that the number was likely closer to 80,000.
Henry Folger’s intention of creating the Folger Library was to make it a gift to the nation, Witmore said. He began by pointing to the buildings’ physical location in Washington, D.C., which was a deliberate choice, he said.
“A line drawn from the Folger Shakespeare memorial through the Capitol building will all but touch the monument to George Washington and the memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the two Americans whose light also spreads across the world,” he said.
He said he has seen Shakespeare’s effect on culture and society in America increase in prominence since its opening.
“It’s clear that in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Washingtonians were beginning to glimpse a future era in which collections of art and artifacts, as well as institutions of learning, would become a defining feature of life in the capitol,” Witmore said.
Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant because of their criticism of government, with observations about power and greed, a relationship that is still present in United States government today. His plays often orbit the misdeeds of monarchs and aristocrats, Witmore said.
That concern prompted a line of thought that directly influenced the U.S. government’s system of checks on both individual and institutional ambitions.
“Shakespeare contributes to a culture of mixed government,” Witmore said. “It is the one, the few, and the many all at once, which was the model that was built for American democracy.”
Witmore then shifted the focus of his lecture to Shakespeare’s effect on culture through his unique understanding of humanity and his ability to write expertly about the obstacles of life. He used the play Othello as a central example of this.
The plot of Othello follows an esteemed general who, misled through lies and deceptions by the trickster Iago, becomes falsely convinced that his wife is cheating on him.
“One of the things you can take away from that play, at any age, is that someday you will meet your Iago,” Witmore said. “Everybody’s gonna meet that person that will tell you lies that you can’t resist. The question in life is what will you do?”
Toward the end of his lecture, Witmore touched on the ways he has continued to spread Shakespeare’s works and his hopes of sparking the same connections he made with the plays to others. His ambition is to make the 90 percent of American students who encounter Shakespeare in high school understand how meaningful the works are, he said.
Thanks to a host of educators, Witmore and his team at the Folger Library have accomplished the daunting task of making Shakespeare’s plays understandable and relatable. Presently, the Folger library has trained 25,000 high school teachers in the education of Shakespeare, according to Witmore.
The training consists of not only reading the works, but helping the teachers act them out, Wiitmore said. Training teachers on both performance and content aspects of Shakespeare has been one of his biggest priorities as director, he said.
“Instead of sitting at a desk reading words, we get out of our seats and look at eachother and recite the lines,” he said. “Even if we don’t comprehend 80 percent of them, just the sheer fact of looking someone else in the eye … allows young people to put the pieces together in a more organic way.”
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