The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Q & A: Michael Witmore, Director

Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library

With this post, we inaugurate a Q & A series with Folger staff. It seems fitting to start off with one of the most recent and most public members of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Director Michael Witmore. Although his position as Director might be relatively new, Mike has a long history with the Folger: he has been a Short-term Fellow here, has published in Shakespeare Quarterly, and is co-curator with Rosamond Purcell of an upcoming exhibit, “Very Like a Whale.” Before coming to the Library, Mike was Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin; prior to that, he was Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent books are Shakespearean Metaphysics (2008) and Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance (2007). An introduction to of his current work, with Jonathan Hope, on digital analysis of early modern drama, can be found on Mike’s blog, Wine Dark Sea. You can also hear more of his thoughts on scholarship, Shakespeare, and the Folger on this Reduced Shakespeare Company podcast. And those of you in the DC area might be interested in his Director’s Choice lecture at the Library on October 26th, “Datamining Shakespeare.”

How did you first get interested in the early modern period?

I have always been interested in it, having been raised as a child on a steady diet of the King James Bible. For a while it looked like I might end up doing History of Science—I was extremely interested in forms of scientific writing before I went to study Rhetoric at Berkeley. Once I became immersed in the history of rhetoric, though, the early modern period tripled in interest. I am fascinated by the question of what it was like to live in a culture, both literate and oral, in which the self-conscious patterning of speech was an indispensable life skill. From Coney Catching manuals to rhetoric manuals, theatrical performances and the sensational subjects of what Tessa Watt called “cheap print,” I have always been interested in what you might call the shared sources of patterned speech and writing. What interests me most about such patterning is the degree to which it can be conventionalized, personalized, or even uprooted through parody and deliberate misapplication.

What difference has it made to how you approach the study of our period coming from a Rhetoric background while having been a teacher in an English department?

I think that Rhetoric was the first organized study of the language arts, and so what we do in English departments is an extension of that tradition, albeit with different emphases and assumptions. The Sophists, a much maligned group who were actually first professional teachers, would recognize some of their own ideas in debates that are unfolding in English departments today. I think the so called cultural turn in the humanities has been friendly to the rhetorical tradition, since that tradition has always begun with the assumption that language is used for social purposes, and that its effective use requires an understanding of culture more broadly. Certainly the Humanists, to the degree that we can say they were part of a single movement, were interested in making this connection between the use of language and mastery of cultural institutions and conventions—particularly ancient ones.

What do you think is the most pressing or exciting issue in early modern studies now?

This is an impossible question to answer, in part because so many important advances in the Humanities in general have been developed out of approaches within Renaissance and (I should add) medieval studies. Simply recognizing that fact seems important to me. I have a hard time seeing how book history as it is currently practiced could do without the tradition of textual editing, much of which developed around the editing of early modern texts. Ditto for paleography. I think important work on race, globalization, popular culture, intellectual history and technology studies—work that has become pivotal in larger discussions of these topics—is also a product of the distinctive questions we ask in our period. I am also interested in how what we used to call the history of ideas plays out in non-literate and visual domains, an area that I would characterize as vernacular intellectual culture. I also see a greater role for corpus linguistics and approaches from comparative literature in our field, since the growing availability of digitized texts will raise fundamental issues about the nature of translation, the mobility of certain types of words, and what it means for something to be culturally (because linguistically) pervasive.

In general I think that the charisma of our field, and it really is fundamentally scholarly, grows out of the dense tangle of ideas that people relied on to make sense of early institutions and experiences. We can argue about what to call these ideas—they grow out of what Andrew Pickering calls the “mangle of practice”—but I think we sell ourselves short as a discipline if we insist that there is no such thing as an idea, or that ideas were not understood as consequential, even life-determining.

How would you characterize yourself as a scholar?

I always look for a question that makes some personal claim on me, one whose consequences I don’t feel like I can fully grasp. This seems like the most productive approach in my experience. So, in my first book about “accidental events,” I was trying to understand early modern providentialism and its relationship to scientific reasoning and theatrical practice. This is a grand series of things to be exploring, perhaps too grand for a first book, but they connected with my own attempts to make sense of the religious training I grew up with and my interest in science.

But I think your question deserves a more concrete answer, and I’d like to know what other early modernists do in their day-to-day scholarly practice. (Perhaps we should begin to keep research diaries in which we blog about our process?) In keeping with certain ideas from Renaissance rhetoric, I usually begin a project with a document that I think of as a container for “bee-pollen,” quotations, citations, and snippets that could be put to work in a larger argument. Often I don’t know exactly what that argument is, but I think I will find one. Sometimes these documents languish and never go anywhere. At other times I use them when responding to a request for a talk or article. To supplement this florilegium approach, which usually involves a computer, I keep a paper notebook and try from day to day to write complete paragraphs about what I am thinking, the question I am trying to solve. We now have so many online sources that it becomes difficult for us to disconnect, remember the feel of paper, and collect ourselves. But that kind of pause is essential for creative, synthetic work. Finally, I keep a “dreck” document open while I’m writing and dump what isn’t working into it: this will eventually contain as much or more material than I use in my final essay, talk, or chapter. As scholars, we’re not inclined to throw things overboard that we have worked hard to discover or compose. The “dreck” document lets me part with things I might want to retain, on the (perhaps fictional?) assumption that they will be preserved for later use. But I have never, in fact, gone back and used things from the dreck, so the name seems apt.

A view inside the Deck C vault

As a co-curator of an upcoming exhibit, you’re among a small group of people who have been down into the Library’s rare book vaults. What’s the strongest memory you have of the first time you were in the vaults?

The chill. Old books need a special environment, and this is not necessarily the environment that humans would select for themselves. I find the vault a bracing experience. Often, when I am in the middle of the rare stacks, I think that I am within 500 walking paces of almost every book I will consult in my working life. So the question becomes, Why can’t I simply walk to all of those places now? For a scholar, you realize that a large part of your thinking life is on the shelves, but also, that being next to the physical objects does not bring you any closer to the “itinerary” you will eventually follow through that forest of paper.

Finally, to channel Desert Island Discs here, what are some items from the Folger’s collections that you would want on your desert island?

That’s a funny question. A desert island is no place for Folger books: it’s the kind of thought that gives a Library Director shivers. I remember once talking to my friend, the photographer Rosamond Purcell, about what Prospero’s books would look like if they had been sitting on a tropical island for many years. Surely the elements would not be friendly. For a while we thought about simulating this exposure effect—through photography—on some of the books from the Folger collection that a character like Prospero might plausibly have taken with him. Obviously the magic grimoire, which Barbara Mowat has written so eloquently about, Folger V.b.26, would be a candidate.

drawing of spirits in a manuscript grimoire

My favorite book in the collection is the highly annotated copy of Montaigne’s Essays, translated by Florio and owned by the Hollywood film magnate Jules Furthman (V.b 327). That would be a real refuge, even if the elements were hostile.

title page of Furthman’s copy of Montaigne’s Essays

I would of course take a copy of the First Folio. Between Montaigne’s Essays and Shakespeare’s Plays—Augustine Vincent’s copy would be my first choice—I think I would have enough to keep me busy for a lifetime.

The Folger’s collection of First Folios


  • I love the idea that we should be writing about the process of our work. One of the big arguments that has been made in favor of open peer review is that it reveals the writing and rewriting that is central to making a good argument (both Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen have argued this and have walked the walk by drafting and posting their latest projects online). And it’s an argument that gets made in terms of making the humanities more visibly relevant: we need to do what we do in front of people (Mark Sample has hit this theme in a recent ProfHacker post as well as in others). I think both of those arguments are absolutely true, and I’ve been striving to contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversations through my site, where I try out new ideas. But your point about focusing on the process of our work, on recording and paying attention to the ways in which we work and not only the results of our work, makes me think how useful (and fun!) it would be to see other scholars’ methods of working. It’s something I try to do when I’m teaching; I’ll have to try doing that elsewhere as well!

  • Loved this interview, which demonstrates why Mike is a great person to lead the Folger. The books on a desert island question was SO unfair, because utterly impossible; I love how he turned it to a meditation upon the materiality of Prospero’s books.

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