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Digital Shakespeare

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The Folger Reading Room, evocatively English / Image by Julie Ainsworth

From the Wall Street Journal and Joel Henning

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.

. . .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.

The 'tool kit for scholars' is changing. The Folger is now digitizing its collection, so "a scholar in Jaipur, India, can use our resources as easily as scholars sitting in our reading room".

The Folger's new director, Michael Witmore "is one of the leading pioneers of data mining of Shakespeare."

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.

'The Game’s Afoot; Follow Your Spirit!' (Henry V, III.1)

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