When “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare” makes a stop this fall at the Chazen Museum of Art as part of its tour of all 50 states, the public will have a rare chance to the view the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays — the original source for such works as “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caesar” and “The Tempest.”
The book, published in 1623, is displayed opened to a famous passage from “Hamlet,” and crowds are expected to assemble simply for the chance to lay eyes on the Folio and the famous “To be or not to be” quote.
What magical combination of words and ideas has made the Bard’s works seemingly immortal for more than 400 years? Two L&S professors thought this would make a great question for students to explore, especially given the stir created by the “First Folio” arriving on campus.
Joshua Calhoun, an assistant professor of English, and Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies and director of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, created Shakespeare and Media, a 100-level English course that examines Shakespeare’s ideas in various forms — from handwritten scrolls and printed books to graphic novels and social media — from when the playwright died in 1616 through 2016.
Shakespeare and Media is more than a deep dive into the Bard’s plays. The course also explores how his words have been written, printed, performed and retold over four centuries — and why they’ve gained cultural authority and continue to be used in the present day.
“One of the overarching ideas is how and why stories get told over time and to what effect,” says Senchyne. “It’s the essential question of the humanities.”
It’s easy to pique students’ interest with Shakespeare, Calhoun says, so they’re using the playwright as a launching point to discuss related topics, from his influence on contemporary authors to the work of his contemporaries.
“Shakespeare is the best click bait,” says Calhoun. “We’re embracing the bait-and-switch you can do with him.”
Gabby Heytens, a sophomore majoring in communication sciences and disorders, recognizes the Bard’s lasting impact. It’s the reason she got interested in Shakespeare in high school and wanted to take this class. “Shakespeare has such timeless themes,” she says. “Romance, war, action, the underdog rising.”
About 200 students, many of them non-English majors, are taking Shakespeare and Media. With the help of their TAs, Calhoun and Senchyne are packing the large lecture course with small-seminar experiences. They’re bringing in guest lecturers and taking students to Special Collections and the Chazen to view the “First Folio.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Senchyne says.
Riffing on the public nature of the Folio, the defining assignment of the class will be to present something about Shakespeare to an audience outside of class. Perhaps a student will stage a Shakespearean flash mob. Maybe another will exchange letters with a grandmother about “Macbeth.”
Zhouyan Chen, a sophomore English major and an exchange student from China, plans to create a modern Chinese translation of “Romeo and Juliet.” She’s seen some translations before, but they’ve been in strict poetic verses. She thinks a more contemporary take on Shakespeare will appeal to Chinese readers.
“His language, his choice of words, is enchanting,” she says.
Senchyne and Calhoun are dubbing the project the Shakesconsin Idea, a mashup of Shakespeare and the Wisconsin Idea.
“Once Shakespeare or Marie Curie or Galileo had a great idea, how did they make it something that you can hold in your hand and share?” Calhoun asks. “Every student is going to face that challenge. In our class, they’ll explore how good ideas have been communicated throughout centuries.”
L&S Celebrates Shakespeare
Three L&S institutions are taking part in UW-Madison’s yearlong focus on Shakespeare.
Chazen Museum of Art: “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare” is on display Nov. 3-Dec. 11. In addition to the historic book, the exhibition features materials and artifacts exploring the significance of the playwright. “Presenting Shakespeare: Posters from Around the World,” a showcase of international Shakespearean theatrical posters, runs Oct. 14-Dec. 11. Assistant professor of English Joshua Calhoun gives the opening reception lecture, “Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet,” on Nov. 3.
University Opera: “Falstaff,” an opera by Guiseppe Verdi, is based on material from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry IV” and “Henry V.” University Opera updates the comic romp to be set in 1930s Hollywood and stages it Nov. 11, 13 and 15.
The Center for the Humanities: High school students from around the state participating in the 2016-17 Great World Texts in Wisconsin program will read Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Booker Prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood will give the keynote address at the annual student conference on April 3.