Shakespeare Unlimited: Hearing the voices of discovery

In our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, now celebrating its 100th episode, you can hear so many surprising and often first-person stories by scholars, musicians, authors, actors, and others on all manner of Shakespearean topics. Amid it all, I enjoy listening for stories of discovery, whether at the Folger or elsewhere—especially that moment of eureka that never goes out of style.

Shakespeare's First Folio, open to the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare and, on the facing page, a dedicatory verse by Ben Jonson
Shakespeare’s First Folio. STC 22273, Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Ben Lauer.

In an episode on Shakespeare and London’s Tabard Inn, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Martha Carlin told us how she found a little-known manuscript that described carved names in the panels of the inn’s “large room” (the manuscript was exhibited at the Folger in 2016). The names, including Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Richard Burbage, seem to offer us a glimpse of Shakespeare’s social life in London. “It was a very lucky discovery of an unpublished manuscript,” she said. “And the discovery that is the most fun, is the discovery of a reference to Shakespeare and his circle that had never been really known about or published.”

For Case Western Reserve Professor Ross W. Duffin, who was a Folger fellow, close reading of The Winter’s Tale revealed references within the play’s spoken text to a popular ballad. That moment, which ultimately led to his book The Shakespeare Songbook, was almost electric: “It was like light bulbs were going on all over the place in my head,” he said. A 2016 interview with George Washington University Professor Ayanna Thompson and Lafayette College Professor Ian Smith shed light on another text-based find: how Smith’s research led to his realization that a line in Othello (“dyed in mummy”) suggests that the crucial handkerchief was dyed black instead of being white, transforming multiple meanings of the play. “It’s as if we realize we’ve been misreading this play for 400 years,” said Thompson. “This is exactly how scholars are coming to Ian’s argument, like, “Oh my gosh, how have we missed this all this time?”

Not every discovery mentioned in the podcast was made in a library. The archaeological project manager who’s worked on Shakespeare’s final home, New Place, in Stratford, told us, “It’s certainly one that I’ll be telling the grandkids about.” And the podcast’s exploration of the moons of Uranus, nearly all named for Shakespeare’s characters, also revealed what it was like to find a moon. One astronomer recalled the last step of comparing two observations, made one hour apart with the same telescope, to verify the discovery. It felt like Christmas. “The presents are there under the tree, and your parents are saying, “Well, you can take the bow off, but you have to wait an hour before you’re allowed to peel back the paper.”

The same joy and fun has come through in episodes on some major news stories. When a library in Saint-Omer, France, identified one of its holdings as a First Folio, expanding the number of known First Folios from 232 to 233, a Shakespeare Unlimited episode quickly followed with University of Nevada Professor Eric Rasmussen, who had confirmed the find. The interviewer asked Rasmussen, a First Folio authority, whether seeing this new First Folio, or any First Folio, still seemed special. “It’s rather like a doctor who delivers babies, and you may have delivered 230 babies,” he said. “But each one is still a miracle, and each one is still beautiful, and that was a beautiful Folio in the north of France.”

In a way, the nature of an audio podcast also makes possible many small “discoveries”—if that’s the appropriate word—or at least, new insights and observations, resulting from the immediacy and energy of audio work. In an episode on Shakespeare and magic, for example, Teller of Penn & Teller and Barbara Mowat, who was the co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare editions, among other roles, took on The Tempest, which Teller had co-directed. “I have a question for you, Barbara,” said Teller. “Does Prospero actually do anything, or does he just make people hallucinate? It seems as though everything that Prospero does seems like a magic show to me,” going on to cite several examples. Her reply began, “Oh, that’s a lovely question. I think this is a “both, and” kind of question…” The exchange is too long to quote here in full, but I encourage you to listen to the episode.

In the recent, 99th episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, John Lithgow and his sister Robin Lithgow and Tony Dallas reminisced together about their fathers—Arthur Lithgow and Meredith Dallas—and their work at the 1950s Antioch Shakespeare Festival, when all three were children. The episode included a wealth of archival audio, some of it on cassette tape, conveying the festival’s high energy, fast speed, and enthusiastic audiences. “I remember everything in that scene,” Robin said, after hearing a lively exchange between Nancy Marchand and Arthur Lithgow in The Taming of the Shrew. “Oh everything, everything,” her brother replied. “I remember watching rehearsals for that scene.” Years later, at a school drama club, he said, Arthur Lithgow would put on the same scene, playing both Petruchio and Katherine.

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