Students Gain New Insights at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Folger Library Trip group portrait

by Olivia Prosser, CAS communications intern

First Folio, Hamlet

Students of the English department’s literature capstone course, ENG 495: The Afterlife of Hamlet and Ophelia, had the unique opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., over Fall Break 2017 and visit the Folger Shakespeare Library. The course, taught by Professor Kaara Peterson, explores the cultural history of Hamlet and the multiple reinterpretations of the text and its characters over the past 400 years. 

The Folger Shakespeare Library is one of the world’s largest Shakespeare collections. This trip gave students the opportunity to see rare texts, such as the Quarto One of Hamlet, up close and gain hands-on experience with these texts. "It is important to get a feeling for the history of the different editions of Hamlet," Peterson said. "We tend to think of Hamlet as just a play, but the version of Hamlet that we all read is different based on what assemblage of the three extant texts it is derived from."

Shakespeare bustThe class arrived in Washington, D.C., Thursday evening and spent a two full days visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library as well as the National Gallery. At the library, the group explored the current exhibition "Painting Shakespeare," received a private tour of the Shakespeare Library (which included a look at the Folger’s Jacobean theater space), viewed special paintings in the Founders' Room and met with librarian Abbie Weinberg to view several rare texts. 

"It was fascinating to hear about the work that goes into collecting and obtaining the works included in the library and the archives below it," said Danielle Rymers, a senior English literature and East Asian Studies major. "Seeing the various materials in person made the fact that people have been interpreting and recreating versions of and pieces of Hamlet that much more tangible and impactful."

In addition to the First Folios and Quartos the students viewed, they also saw Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives. "The folios are things that likely only wealthy people would have had in their libraries," Peterson said. "The Directory for Midwives is an octavo and was seen as an everyday sort of handbook… their version of WebMD." This text allowed students to find the connection between medical knowledge of that day and the prevalence of Ophelia’s insanity. When asked what insights she hoped student took away from viewing this rare text, Peterson said, "The size of the text drives home the popular medical beliefs at the time that have a bearing on the text of Hamlet."

Folger Reading Room

Another highlight from the trip was the National Gallery visit. Students were assigned several artworks to analyze. "My favorite part of the trip was having the opportunity to wander around the National Gallery on our own, viewing some of the paintings our professor had personally suggested, but also finding paintings and sculptures on our own that could be connected to Hamlet, specifically, and Shakespeare in general," said senior English literature major Jennie Schaaf.

"Our visit to the Folger really helped me understand that Shakespeare’s works extend beyond text and performance," said senior French and English literature major Caroline Godard. "Not only did we see several rare books, but we also saw paintings, sculptures and other artistic representations inspired by Shakespeare or his works and Hamlet."

Although most of the rare texts and artwork in the Folger Shakespeare Library have been digitally scanned and shared worldwide, according to Peterson, when it comes to viewing the original copies of rare texts and artworks, some with marginalia and handwritten notes, "materiality can’t be beat."