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Collection Connections: ‘The Shakespeare Requirement’

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s new virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on September 3, 2020 as an introduction to The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher. Discussions questions from the evening can be found here.


Many contemporary students will study Shakespeare at some point in their education, but what would Shakespeare himself have studied? Children in the early modern period began their education at the age of around 5 at “petty” or “dame” schools, which were usually run by a local woman out of her home. There, youngsters would learn to read, first using a hornbook and then possibly simple, religious texts. Writing was taught separately, making it hard to accurately gauge literacy levels in the period. Around the age of 8 the boys would graduate to the local grammar school, whose instructors were often university-educated men, while the girls’ education would largely shift back home, focusing on tasks required for running a household.

Guild Chapel and the exterior of Shakespeare’s school. Haunts of Shakespeare. Paul Braddon. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Box B798 no.8 (size L).

At grammar school, Shakespeare would have learned Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and public speaking. Memorization was the primary approach to such education and plays were a common learning tool. Combined, this would have been excellent training for an aspiring life in the theater.  Shakespeare’s own formal education stopped at the grammar school level. University was useful if you were pursuing a career in medicine, law, or the Church, but it was also expensive and relatively few were able to attend. Notable exceptions were the “University Wits,” a group of university-educated playwrights of the time that included Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe.

Shakespeare’s school room. A. C. Wyatt. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Box W975 no.2 (size L).

The story of how Shakespeare evolved from a student in the classroom to a subject taught in the classroom is a surprisingly lengthy evolution when you consider how present he is in the modern English curriculum. As colonial colleges were formed in America they, unsurprisingly, borrowed heavily from the English academic model, focusing on the classics and how to form/deliver arguments. Literature was not lofty enough for dedicated study, but was a popular choice with the literary clubs that began forming on campuses in 1750 and continued well through the next century. Shakespeare’s plays were popular entertainments during the 19th century, and as theater became more respectable, the idea of Shakespeare as suitable for students became increasingly accepted. Eventually his plays moved from uncredited passages in select volumes of the McGuffey Readers to full scholastic editions with supplemental material, such as this one from the turn of the 20th century.

Table of Contents of Arnold School Shakespeare
Julius Caesar ed. by E.M. Butler, Arnold’s School Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library. PR2756 .A81 v.8 Sh.Col.

Arnold’s School Shakespeare bears a number of similarities to the editions many of us have on our shelves today—an introduction, an essay on Shakespeare’s life, and notes on the text (though “Ethics” may be missing from your copy). What might also be familiar to  modern readers are these editions from our very own Folger Shakespeare Library. Originally published in the late 1950s/early 1960s as The Folger Library General Shakespeare  and edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, the rebranded New Folger Library editions were released in the late 1980s/early 1990s in the form so familiar to us. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine edited these later editions, which were accompanied by meticulous scholarship and textual annotations. The texts were digitized in 2012 and are freely available via the newly updated Folger Shakespeare website.

Folger editions of Hamlet from 1961 and 1992. Folger Shakespeare Library. PR2753 W8 1959 v.7 and Folger Library Edition of Hamlet.

These school editions became a valuable part of inspiring 20th—and now 21st—century students. But how was the spark of fascination kindled in Henry and Emily Folger? For that, we look to their college days. Henry’s Amherst College accommodations may have been grander than the cramped, cinder-block rooms common to today’s dormitories (see below), but his time in the class of 1879 was filled with the kinds of activities we can imagine students at Payne University enjoying. Member of the glee club and Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and performer in a campus production of H.M.S. Pinafore, Henry also had time for the occasional lecture. Having seen Ralph Waldo Emerson deliver a talk on “The Superlative or Mental Temperance,” Henry discovered Emerson’s writing on Shakespeare. This discovery set Henry on the path that would eventually lead to the creation of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Mr. Folger’s room at college (?). Folger Shakespeare Library. Folger Archives Box 41.

No scholastic slouch herself, Emily Jordan Folger attended Vassar, where she was president of her class and excelled at English composition, French, and astronomy. She attended performances, dances, and debates, and, during her marriage to Henry, received a Master’s from Vassar for her thesis “On the True Text of Shakespeare.” She later received an honorary doctorate from Amherst.

As our discussion of The Shakespeare Requirement illustrated, there continues a rich vein of debate regarding Shakespeare’s role in schools and culture. From those who have grown to love him to those who ask us to examine the effects of his prominence, there is a wide spectrum of response and feelings.

We look forward to keeping the conversation going!


Shakespeare bust with glassesRegistration for the October 1 session on Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is opens Tuesday, September 8 at 4pm. We hope you make a plan to join us!

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