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Lectures examines Shakespeare legacy

| Monday, February 1, 2016

Throughout January, the University hosted the First Folio exhibit, featuring a collection of Shakespearean works, and held performances, tours and lectures to celebrate the Folio.

Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, concluded the “Folio Fridays” lecture series last Friday with his talk entitled “Centuries of Shakespeare.”

“The Folger is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and that anniversary is part of what inspires my visit today,” Witmore said.

“Four centuries is a long time in literary history, and in theatre history, the name Shakespeare has become synonymous with longevity.”

Witmore credited this longevity in part to the printed press.

“An actor can memorize lines from a play, and a scribe can write them down, but a printing press can ensure that these words are carried far and wide,” he said. “The introduction of print was the first major media revolution that we know, and the First Folio is a landmark in this longer history.”

He said the repeatability of words is important and that the printed press was the first step in allowing words to be repeated. He contended that Shakespeare himself was a great repeater, and he cited many words that have been accredited to Shakespeare but that actually have origins in earlier works.

“If you find one of those webpages that lists all of the words that Shakespeare coined or created, you should say to yourself, ‘Shakespeare gladly took these from somebody else,’” Witmore said.

The re-creation of Shakespeare’s is important and contributes to his legacy, he mentioned.

“Being for the century means not only that your words are repeated, but that they’re repeated in new ways,” Witmore said.

Witmore said Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted in a variety of mediums, such as films, different theatre productions, for example plays acted out on tabletops with salt and pepper shakers.

“Shakespeare’s works are always on their way to becoming something else, which is an excellent way of sticking around,” he said.

There are many new mediums through which Shakespeare’s plays are told, Witmore said.

“Being for the centuries also means being for new mediums,” he said. “Whether its television, video, microbes or the humble printed book, new technologies often prove their worth by showing that they can reproduce Shakespeare’s words, his characters and stories.”

Just as the meanings of Shakespeare’s word shift, so do the ways people celebrate his legacy, Witmore said.

“The long afterlife of Shakespeare depends on the possibility that whatever was sent to posterity in the moment of this man’s death would be misunderstood, which is another way of saying adapted and creatively remade,” he said.

“Every century has to misunderstand Shakespeare in its own way, and we ought to be judged by the temper of that misunderstanding.”

Witmore raised his concerned regarding today’s changing media.

“A printed book can survive for hundreds of years; digital media can become unplayable within decades,” Witmore said.

Witmore said he believes more needs to be done with Shakespeare in the present day.

“I’m here tonight because I believe that we have more work to do when it comes to Shakespeare,” he explained. “Whether it’s to misunderstand in interesting ways, or simply to try to catch up with where he seems to be taking us.

“I think and hope that Shakespeare is part of the broader trend of thinking inclusively when it comes to culture … [and] our research and our collection could be tapped to inspire teaching of the performing arts and humanities.”

Witmore suggests Shakespeare is seemingly and deeply connected to the contemporary issues our society is facing.

“Think, for a moment, about what we struggle with today,” Witmore said. “Sectarian violence, economic inequality, environmental degradation, media change. Shakespeare lived in an age that saw very similar upheavals, not only in the mass communications challenge presented by the printed book, but in ideas about the dignity of the individual, about freedom of conscious and expression.

“Shakespeare’s London world is a world of urbanization, crime, intelligence, networks, mercantilist stock exchanges and a new form of secular entertainment called theatre. Part of what makes Shakespeare’s stories resonate with us today is the fact that the world he was writing about was in the process of becoming our own.

“We can only hope the subsequent centuries of Shakespeare will find their own way of beautifully, creatively misunderstanding his work, which is the best way to make it rich and strange.”

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