The Folger Spotlight

What's On at the Folger

Words, Familiar in Their Mouths

One of the wonderful rewards of listening to lots of Shakespeare is the moment when you begin to recognize passages or themes that re-occur. It is the feeling of finally being able to recognize a painter from the strokes of their brush or a composer from the first few notes of an overture.

Oh Mendelssohn you crazy man

As children learn to recognize their parents’ voices and reach to them for comfort, so we move towards writers with whom we feel a particular connection. As Hector says in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

There are many ways in which the lines from Shakespeare connect to the world outside. In last year’s exhibit “Very Like a Whale”, Folger Director Michael Witmore and photographer Rosamund Purcell collaborated to create an exhibit that paired modern photographs, early modern manuscripts, and natural objects with quotes from Shakespeare plays.

"Very Like a Whale"
“Very Like a Whale”

The connections between the objects and the text were often indirect – this stone looks like a bird’s wing which feels like the Chorus’ line from Henry V, “Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies in motion of no less celerity than that of thought” – but they all eventually linked together. An object provoked an emotion which found expression in a line of Shakespeare. Fallen in dark, uneven ways and through the glass darkly but now face to face.

In the Curators’ Insights for the exhibition, Dr. Witmore described the connections between the objections in the exhibition: “‘My reaction to these images is immediately emotional, a set of overtones and feelings…I look at it and I think, I’ve had that feeling before.’ The photograph “Awake Your Faith,” for example, suggests the scene in The Winter’s Tale in which a statue comes to life. ‘That is probably my favorite moment in the plays,’ says Witmore. ‘A very hopeful moment, a triumph of hope over experience—buoyancy, life, and longing. I have the same feelings on the stage and in the image for that moment.'”

awake your faith
“Awake Your Faith”

Lines in Shakespeare resonate not only with the outside world, but also with other plays in the canon. Sometimes a particular line feels familiar, sometimes a situation (“Hey look! More twins!!”).

Even a particular silence can feel familiar – think of Lear recognizing Cordelia and Leontes, Hermione. As Claudio would say, “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy”. Recognition is not always a happy occasion in Shakespeare however – think of Brutus advancing towards Caesar or Tamora taking a closer look at the finger food on her plate.

Bye mom! See you at dinner!

Luckily, recognizing particular passages in Shakespeare is usually a pleasant experience for the reader, if not for the character. There is however, a certain pang to the realization that  characters in Shakespeare keep making the same mistakes. (This artist’s solution of having protagonists switch places seems like a neat solution.)

Just like “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” or “If you invade Russia in the winter, you’re going to have a bad time”, “Blood will have blood” always proves true in Shakespeare.

There are a number of passages in Richard III that feel similar to other Shakespeare plays. Some use almost identical words and syntax, others are related through theme or structure.

For example, Margaret from Richard III and Rosalind from As You Like It use the same structure to give instuctions to multiple people – “You go here and do this thing, you go over here and do this other thing, and I’m going to go over HERE and do this last thing.” – even though one is giving instuctions about marriage and the other about how to avoid being murdered.

RICHARD III: [To DORSET] Go thou to Richmond, and good fortune guide thee! [To LADY ANNE] Go thou to Richard, and good angels guard thee! [To QUEEN ELIZABETH] Go thou to sanctuary, and good thoughts possess thee! I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me!

AS YOU LIKE IT: [To PHEBE] I will marry you if ever I marry woman,
and I’ll be married to-morrow. [To ORLANDO] I will satisfy you if
ever I satisfied man, and you shall be married to-morrow. [To
I will content you if what pleases you contents you, and

you shall be married to-morrow. [To ORLANDO] As you love
Rosalind, meet. [To SILVIUS] As you love Phebe, meet;- and as I
love no woman, I’ll meet.

Deus ex machina in 3...2...
Deus ex machina in 3…2…

Or this example, where both Richard III and Portia from Julius Caesar tell their servants go do something as fast as they possibly can, but forget to tell them what the thing is. First from Richard III:

RICHARD: Dull, unmindful villain, why stand’st thou still, and go’st not to the duke?

CATESBY: First, mighty sovereign, let me know your mind,
What from your grace I shall deliver to him.

And then from Caesar:

PORTIA: I prithee, boy, run to the senate-house; Stay not to answer me, but get thee gone: Why dost thou stay?

LUCIUS: To know my errand, madam.

Too slow a messenger
Too slow a messenger

In both cases, the character is so preoccupied with the coming chaos (Richard with the Battle of Bosworth Field and Portia with the assasination of Julius Caesar) that they forget that it is usually helpful to tell someone what to do if you would like them to do it. The other examples below are more direct. Till next time!

RICHARD III:  What is done cannot be now amended” (Richard)

MACBETH: “What’s done is done” (Lady Macbeth)

RICHARD III: “I am in so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin” (Richard)

MACBETH: “I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Macbeth)

RICHARD III: “Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men to turn their own points on their masters’ bosoms” (Buckingham)

MACBETH: “This even-handed justice commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice to our own lips” (Macbeth)

RICHARD III: “Hoyday, a riddle! neither good nor bad!” (Richard)

HAMLET: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet)

RICHARD III: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders ere I will see the crown so foul misplaced” (Hastings)

HAMLET: [points to his head and shoulder] Take this from this if this be otherwise” (Polonius)

RICHARD III: “A dream of what thou wert, a breath, a bubble…a queen in jest, only to fill the scene.” (Margaret)

RICHARD II: “There the antic sits, scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, allowing him a breath, a little scene” (Richard II)

RICHARD III: “A plague upon you all!” (Richard)

ROMEO AND JULIET: “A plague o’both your houses!” (Mercutio)

RICHARD III: “She shall be sole victress, Caesar’s Caesar.” (Richard)

TWELFTH NIGHT: “You shall from this time be your master’s mistress” (Orsino)

RICHARD III: “In those holes where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept, as ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems” (Clarence)

TEMPEST: “Those are pearls that were his eyes” (Ariel)

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)