50 episodes and counting: Shakespeare Unlimited podcast explores race, imperialism, magic, music, Star Wars, and more

The Shakespeare Unlimited podcast connects Shakespeare and his plays with our world today through interviews with actors, directors, and scholars—but also with astronomers, a conservator, and a professional magician, among others.

The 50th episode, which deals with race, Othello, and how the Elizabethans portrayed blackness onstage, offers a startling, new interpretation of Desdemona’s handkerchief that is changing the way scholars understand the play.

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Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, and Shakespeare Unlimited investigates how his plays have been translated into different languages and different cultural settings. Despite Shakespeare’s imperialist roots around the globe, former British colonies in India, Africa, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean have embraced him as their own, leaving their distinct marks on stage and film versions of his plays.

We become better acquainted with Shakespeare through his plays, but also through the great actors whose iconic performances define his characters, whether in the theater or on the big screen. Their stories, too, are diverse and unexpected, including that of the famed American actress Charlotte Cushman, who starred as Romeo with her sister as Juliet.

When Romeo Was a Woman. Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 13
When Romeo Was a Woman. Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 13.

What do we know about Shakespeare himself? Shakespeare Unlimited has tackled the myths and conjectures (did he hate his wife?), sifting through deep longings to know more about Shakespeare’s life–including the basic question, “What did he look like?”

Excavating the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare’s day, the podcast also investigates how his original audiences would have thought about witchcraft and magic, religion and the afterlife; the music they knew and loved; the weaponry around them and all that it communicated about social status.

First Folio
A New First Folio Discovery. Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 17. Photo credit: Jeff Dow.

Several podcast episodes have explored the First Folio, the book that gave us Shakespeare: how it was made, what it means for Shakespeare editors and the text we use today, and how newly discovered First Folios are authenticated. The series also considers the origins of the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest collection of First Folios, and what it took to send 18 of these 82 Folios on the road to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

So much has changed in the past four centuries: Is what was funny in Shakespeare’s time still funny today? If English language pronunciation has changed since Elizabethan England, what do we miss in modern productions?

But Shakespeare’s stories continue to resonate for readers and audiences today. His words and his forms inspire new creative work, whether it’s retelling Star Wars in the style of Shakespeare’s plays, rewriting pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets, mixing Bard-inspired cocktails, or pitting the plays’ characters against each other in a comic book series.

Shakespeare Not Stirred
Shakespeare, Not Stirred. Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 30. Photo by Al Mallette.

And then there are the more unexpected places Shakespeare shows up, like outer space or 19th-century courtrooms. Do you have a topic that you think would be perfect for a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode? Tell us in the comments below.

Shakespeare Unlimited is produced for the Folger by Richard Paul, an award-winning public radio documentary producer and author. Garland Scott, who heads up communications and marketing for the Folger, is the Associate Producer. Esther Ferington, who writes for Folger Magazine and has developed online, print, and other projects for the Folger and other institutions, and Gail Kern Paster, editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and director emerita of the Folger, edit the series. The team first worked together on the Folger’s three-part documentary for public radio, Shakespeare in American Life. Esther French is the web producer. Shakespeare Unlimited hosts include Barbara Bogaev, Neva Grant, and Rebecca Sheir, with introductions by Folger Director Michael Witmore.

See a full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes and subscribe on iTunes.

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