I teach a course called "Shakespeare in Context." Part of what I do in this course—as its title suggests—is to situate Shakespeare's plays and poems in their early modern cultural, political, economic, theatrical, textual, and/or historical contexts. Such contextualization provides a framework for both understanding Shakespeare's language as well as the conflicts—be they familial, political, or otherwise—that animate the plays and poems. But, as I tell my students on day one, this course should probably be called "‘Shakespeare' in Context," because it is concerned as much with how early modern England shaped Shakespeare's poetry and drama as it is with how the past 400 years have shaped and reshaped "Shakespeare." Here is the course description:
In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, his actor colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays in a large, expensive book. Half of the plays printed in the First Folio, as this book is known today, had never been printed before. If his friends had not published this book, classics like The Tempest and Macbeth might well have been lost to future generations—and to us. Many critics have claimed that the First Folio paved the way for Shakespeare’s ascendance to the status of poet “for all time.” This course will explore the ways in which the books of Shakespeare’s plays and poems have shaped his legacy, from the cheap quarto pamphlets published in his own lifetime to digital editions designed for a new, tech-savvy generation of students. We will situate Shakespeare’s plays and poems in the social, political, and cultural contexts of early modern England before considering a variety of agents in the literary marketplace—publishers, editors, illustrators, translators, educators, actors, government officials, and readers—who have brought their own agendas to bear on the presentation of his writings in print. We will investigate how the range of textual forms in which Shakespeare’s plays and poems have appeared over the last 400 years have come to shape our understandings of Shakespeare, his work, and his place in culture.
This semester, we are reading seven plays and the sonnets, and for each, students are required to complete a "context assignment" that asks them to engage with a textual afterlife. (Among the textual afterlives are ballads, comic books, "family" Shakespeare, illustrated editions, textbooks, performance editions, and digital surrogates.) The short context assignments invite students to write about the material features of the given textual afterlife and what these features suggest about its production, intended audience, and fashioning of "Shakespeare." In equal measure, the assignments prompt students to consider how the afterlife co-opts "Shakespeare" for new ends. In completing these assignments, students practice various methods of "reading" a book (or textual object) and explore the ways in which such approaches to reading inflect, if at all, the close readings of the texts we develop together in class.
In lieu of a longer essay, I am trying out a new "centerpiece" assignment this semester: a three-part ADOPT-A-BOOK assignment in which students "adopt" an edition of one of the plays on the syllabus (or the sonnets) other than the Folger Shakespeare Library edition we're using in class. Over the next three months, each student will read, think, and write about their adopted book, the text(s) within it, its relationship to the text(s) in the Folger edition, and the work it does to help shape the play's status in culture. I have designed the assignment so that students have multiple options for acquiring their books, including signing one out from my own growing teaching collection (two of which are pictured at the top of this post). I know colleagues at other institutions who have done similar assignments as a way of getting their students into the archives. While VCU's Special Collections has a few items that students could adopt for this assignment, there aren't nearly enough for all my students to take this route. That said, I've made the search for an interesting, adoptable book part of the exercise.
I have also designed the assignment knowing full well that this is not a full-on book history course but rather one in which I can only cover the basics. That said, the assignment may not be as technical as some #biblionerds might expect. This is on purpose.
I hope to be able to share some of my students' adopted books (and their insights about them, if they'll permit me to) at the end of the semester. But, in the meantime, I thought I would post the instructions for each stage of the assignment. Below is a slightly edited version of assignment sheet for PART 1. I would welcome feedback for future iterations of this assignment and promise to report back on how it goes.
OVERVIEW: ADOPT-A-BOOK ASSIGNMENT
ENGL 326-002: Shakespeare in Context
During the semester, we will study a variety of “textual afterlives” in order to examine how Shakespeare’s plays have been published, performed, remade, appropriated, edited, and taught since they first appeared in the London theaters and bookstalls. Whether or not you agree with these interventions or the motivations behind them, they are worth studying for what they can tell us about the shifting status of “Shakespeare” and his plays in culture over time and across space. The goal of the Adopt-a-Book Assignment is for each of you to find and report back on a textual afterlife not on the syllabus.
This multi-stage assignment will be the centerpiece of the work you do for this class. You will be asked to “adopt” an edition of one of the plays on our syllabus other than the one we’re using for the course. I will have some available that you can choose from and sign out for the assignment, or (better yet!), you can hunt one down in VCU’s Special Collections, online, or at one of the city’s used bookstores. While this is not a formal essay assignment, it does require you to engage in sustained thinking and writing about your adopted book, the text within it, its relationship to the version of the play we’ve been studying in class, and the work it does to shape the play’s status in culture. If this sounds like a lot, don’t worry! The assignment is broken down into three discrete stages, each one building on what you will have done previously.
Please follow the detailed instructions for each part of the assignment that follow. The assignment is set up to give you plenty of time to explore, read, study, and write about your adopted edition. This said, it is important to stay on track with assignment and to consult with me as necessary during my office hours or by appointment. You must complete all three parts of the assignment on time in order to pass.
Because this assignment asks you to think in new and different ways about books and Shakespeare, you’re bound to have questions as you go. I am available to meet with you as many times as you’d like to work through any part of the assignment!
PART 1: SELECT AND DESCRIBE YOUR EDITION
One key to success on this assignment is choosing a book that interests you of a play that interests you. That said, you should follow these guidelines when making your selection:
- You must adopt a book of one of the plays on the syllabus (Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Richard II, or The Winter’s Tale) or the sonnets. (Unless you’re someone who likes to read ahead, I would suggest choosing one of the plays from the second half of the course.)
- The book you choose must be “used.” In other words, do not buy a brand new edition of your chosen play, even if it is different from the Folger edition.
There are several possible ways to find a book to adopt for this assignment. Don’t just seize on the first book you find. Explore a couple of these avenues and choose wisely:
LOCAL USED BOOKSTORES
There are two used bookstores within walking distance of campus that usually have a range of Shakespeare:
- Chop Suey Books / http://www.chopsueybooks.com / 2913 West Cary Street
- Black Swan Books / http://www.blackswanbooks.com / 2601 West Main Street
You can, of course, search for a book to adopt online via Amazon Marketplace, Powell’s Books, AbeBooks, Alibris, etc. If you go this route, please make sure you allow enough time for shipping. “Delayed shipping” is not a valid excuse for handing in the first part of the assignment late. You should plan to have the book in hand well before the deadline for this part of the assignment.
PROFESSOR BOURNE’S TEACHING COLLECTION
I have a variety of editions that you can adopt for the length of the assignment. You’re more than welcome to stop by my office hours (or make an appointment) to rummage through my collection. If you find something in my collection that you would like to use for this assignment, you’ll need to sign it out and return it to me with the final part of the assignment (before Thanksgiving break). In signing out the book, you agree to return it in the same condition so that future students can use it.
SPECIAL COLLECTIONS & ARCHIVES, VCU LIBRARIES
There will be a reserve shelf in VCU’s Special Collections department with books that you can use for this assignment. Among these items are comic books and a page from the First Folio. If you are interested in working with one of these items, please let me know.
CABELL LIBRARY, VCU LIBRARIES
You can also find a book to adopt in the circulating collection at Cabell Library. Go and browse the stacks and find an edition of the play that stands out!
Once you’ve found a book to adopt, your next task is to describe the book in as much detail as possible. Begin by responding to the following prompts:
- How did you go about acquiring your book? Where did you find it? Provide a short but substantive narrative of this process.
- Why did you choose this particular book?
- Provide a transcription of the title as it appears on the cover or the dust jacket. If there is no title on the front of the book, transcribe the title that appears on the spine. If there is no title on the spine, transcribe the title as it appears for the first time inside the book.
- When was the edition published?
- Where was it published?
- Who published it?
- Does the book have an editor? If so, who?
- Are there other names or entities associated with the book?
- What are the dimensions of the book in inches and centimeters (width x height x depth)?
- How many pages does the book have?
Then, use the questions that follow as a guide for writing a 500-word account of the material features of the book. This account should present in detail your observations about the physical book. If your book has a particular feature that does not fall into any of the categories mentioned in these questions, you should definitely include a description of that feature. Used books in particular are surprising objects, and I want you to be alert to those surprises.
- Is your edition a paperback or a hardback?
- Does it have a dust jacket?
- Is there an image on the cover or dust jacket?
- What other information is on the cover (front, back, and spine)?
- Is the book illustrated? If so, what kind of illustrations? How many? In color? B&W?
- Does the book feature any paratexts: advertisements, introduction, note on the text, footnotes, marginal notes, dramatis personæ, ornaments, dedication, portrait, etc.? Describe these.
- How does the book feel to hold and read? Be really specific here.
- Does it contain good quality paper? Low quality paper? How can you tell?
- How are the pages laid out? Anything weird or quirky about the page design? Even if the pages just “look like a play,” describe how/why they just “look like a play.” What design features make a play “look like a play” in print?
- Does it have any signs of use: inscription, cracked spine, annotations, underlining, torn pages, dog-eared pages, marginal doodles, water damage, food stains, loose paper/objects between the pages, etc.? Provide detailed descriptions of these.
The more detailed your descriptive account of your book is, the better. If you would like to embed images of the features you discuss in your document (that is, if you think it would supplement your descriptions), please feel free to do so.