Fair warning: this is a total fangirl post. I feel like a kid who’s just been to Disneyland for the first time.
There’s something weirdly indescribable about the Folger. Its art deco exterior gives way to a reading room that looks like it got lost on the way to Cambridge. Its proximity to the Capitol, Supreme Court (see photo), and Library of Congress is both totally fitting and totally incongruous: the message (as ever) seems to be that Shakespeare is as much part of the nation’s fabric as its governing bodies. It also makes lunch-break sight-seeing much easier.
And when I say it’s like Disneyland, I mean that it is the happiest place on earth. Not only is it home to exciting documents and a Beauty and the Beast-worthy library/reading room, but the people! They truly are the happiest, friendliest, loveliest people in the world (sorry Disney, they win). So helpful, so kind, and so excited to be where they are doing what they’re doing. It’s like a secret happy club. I liked it. A lot.
For those who are interested, I was hanging out with a series of quartos and manuscripts whilst I was there, along with a 1910 edition of Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust. I saw an octavo from 1657 of Women Beware Women, the 1653 Changeling, The Birth of Merlin (1662), All’s Lost by Lust (1633), and the title pages for the 1625 printings of A Game at Chess. And I got to handle the Archdall and Rosenbach manuscripts of A Game at Chess. I only had two days, so I had to work pretty quickly, but I’m hoping to come back and spend a lot more time in the future (i.e., dear Folger, please give me a fellowship someday!).
I’m sure the novelty will wear off after a while, but it’s my first time, so I’m going to gush a little. I touched paper that Thomas Middleton and Ralph Crane also touched!!! The ink from the pens that were in there hands was under my hands. It was almost religious.
I also had a total nerd-gasm over Ralph Crane’s handwriting. It’s just so pretty. You can totally tell he was a professional scribe (especially when his writing is juxtaposed against Middleton’s slightly less legible writing, as it is in the Archdall manuscript. What amazed me most, however, was how different actually sitting in a room with these textual witnesses was to reading about them and seeing facsimiles or photos in books like Grace Ioppolo’s (Dramatists and their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton and Heywood, which, regardless, I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject!). It’s not that I don’t believe her when she says that Crane is rather more fond of the colon than Middleton, but there’s something about seeing it firsthand, about making notes and realising that pattern for oneself. And I haven’t even mentioned my joy at finding that I wasn’t completely terrible at palaeography! I did cheat a little–I had T.H. Howard-Hill’s transcription of the Trinity manuscript to hand.
The work also got me thinking about and feeling grateful for all of the people who spent time figuring these things out and transcribing them and making guides for how to read secretary hand (seriously, thank you to those people). I then went on a thought-tangent about my own handwriting, which is somewhere between cursive and printing (as I suspect most modern hands are). Handwriting is starting to be phased out of schools at the very moment: the focus has shifted (perhaps rightly?) to typing skills. Will the people of the future “discover” our handwritten documents, in what we consider perfectly legible handwriting, and find themselves critiquing minutiae of “minuscules and majuscules”? Already there are children and teenagers who can’t read cursive script; I have to be conscious to print when I’m teaching and hand-writing feedback. But, like all tangents, this discussion isn’t really going anywhere. It’s just something I thought about whilst deciphering what, to a 17th-century reader, was probably perfectly legible handwriting.
And so, although I didn’t “discover” anything new, I certainly have a lot more information, and a lot more detail, than I had before I went. And now I completely understand why my lovely supervisors insisted that I should see these documents first-hand if I was planning to include some textual studies in my dissertation.
So long, for now, Folger! I’ll be back…