It is almost 2016! For the Folger Shakespeare Library, that means we are about to kick off The Wonder of Will, 400 Years of Shakespeare, and one of the first initiatives we have planned as part of our year-long commemoration is Shakespeare Documented. When it launches in mid-January, it will be the largest and most authoritative resource for learning about primary sources that document the life and career of William Shakespeare. The online exhibition will include high-resolution images, descriptions, and transcriptions of over 500 manuscript and printed references and allusions to Shakespeare and his works in his own lifetime and shortly thereafter, as well as additional references to his family. While the Folger is coordinating the site, Shakespeare Documented is a multi-institutional collaboration between over thirty contributing institutions in the US and the UK, with the majority of entries coming from the Folger and our main partners: the Bodleian Library, the British Library, The National Archives, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
As we enter into the final few weeks of editing and formatting, we’d like to share a few snapshots of the joys and challenges of assembling such a large and complicated project. But first you need to meet Claire Dapkiewicz. She is the wizard behind the whole endeavor, working tirelessly and patiently with curators, archivists, photography departments, scholars, editors, publicists, and other stakeholders at over 30 institutions to coordinate photography, permissions, metadata, and content for the 500+ items.
The initial concept for Shakespeare Documented was quite modest: provide images and descriptions of the roughly 100 known direct manuscript references to William Shakespeare in his own lifetime, in chronological order. But as Claire started combing through The Shakspere Allusion-Book, E.K. Chambers’s William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, and Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, as well as more recent scholarship, we realized that we needed to expand our scope. Allusions to his plays and poetry, in both print and manuscript, were critical for providing a more nuanced and complete picture of Shakespeare and his reputation in his own lifetime. And because many of the allusions pointed to, or came from, specific editions of Shakespeare’s writings, we decided to include all editions of the quartos up to the publication of the First Folio in 1623. We then decided to include a small number of post-1616 references to Shakespeare in order to follow his family line to the end, and because there are several important (and perhaps apocryphal) stories about Shakespeare in the decades following his death. Our final expansion happened when we decided to include a group of records relating to Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, to further contextualize the family’s social status and the granting of a coat of arms to John.
In October 2014 we conducted a card-sorting exercise as we worked on the structure of the website.
Once we began working on descriptions of the items (many provided by our wider community of Shakespeare scholars), interesting things began to happen. We found inconsistencies and errors in old transcriptions. Does Simon Forman’s description of Winter’s Tale end with a warning about “rogues and fellows” or “rogues and felons”? The latter, we now think. A seemingly simple entry for the 4th (Q4) edition of Venus and Adonis opened (and then closed) a can of worms: it has previously been described as an octavo, but is it in fact a long 12mo or a 16mo? A Facebook debate settled that one pretty quickly: it is still an octavo. Wait, has anyone noticed that marginal manuscript reference to Shakespeare in that legal document before? Exciting—yet another example of Shakespeare’s name in manuscript in his lifetime! We fully expect other serendipitous discoveries to happen as well: when we launch the site, all of the images and metadata will be there, but we will still have a number of entries in need of fuller descriptions, ripe for more connections to be made.
The site is now structured so that one can browse all 500+ entries in chronological order, or else filter by category (theater, poetry, family, legacy), repository, name, play or poem, decade, or medium (print, manuscript, marginalia). Because of the tagging structure and extensive internal linking, related items can be viewed together. Never before have all of these resources been so easily accessible and searchable in a single place, for the use of the general public, teachers, and scholars alike. When Shakespeare Documented launches, we hope it helps users make new connections between items, understand the archival history of certain classes of manuscripts more thoroughly, and appreciate and understand the documentary legacy of the greatest playwright of all time.