As part of “Shakespeare in Miami,” Gail Paster, the former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., came to campus to discuss “King Lear” and her ideas on The Bard.
The Miami Hurricane: This is really great because as an English major you’re kind of a superstar. What you do and what you’ve been able to do, it’s incredible.
Gail Paster: I’ve just had the most wonderful privilege of being the director of an institute like Folger’s. I loved being a professor of English and teaching undergraduates, which I’ve done that for a long time at George Washington University. And eventually, you realize you’ve done what you can in the classroom and, there’s always more wonderful students, but you realize you’ve kind of done it. To be able to get a second chance and have a great second job, which was wonderful.
TMH: What were some of the things you did as director?
GP: Well, I did a fair amount of repair. The first responsibility of the Director of the Folgers’s Institute is to keep the collections safe, because here you have the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. Here, you have the third largest collection of early printed books, plus manuscripts, plus works of art, plus letters and playbills. It’s a remarkable collection, and you can take advantage that those materials are safe, but that’s a mistake.
So the first thing that happened was that we had a really bad leak in the vaults and all of a sudden the collection is at risk, and you know that is your first responsibility. We had to spring into action. We had to waterproof the vault, and I had to raise some money to make that happen. We had a fire in our theater, a couple of years after that. In other words, there’s the physical safety of the building, the collections of the building, and watching the building.
And then I think the second responsibility of the Director, as I understood it, is to open up the library to new audiences and to break down the barriers and walls. If you go on the website and look at the building outside, you’ll see a beautiful building that was designed to look like a Greek temple. But, it also looks like “don’t bother walking in here because this is not an open-access sort of site. It looks like a private building, a federal building, fairly forbidding, beautiful, but, forbidding and what you want to do is figure out how to say “come in, we have plays and poetry readings, we have fiction readings.” 200 days of the year there is something for you to come see and hear. So a lot of it is doing that, and I think that with the advent of digital and social media, the avenues of reaching people and having them reach back have just been expanded. So, for me it was very much about getting the Folger on the map, for people who care about Shakespeare, for people who care about institutions holding precious, precious artifacts, for people who want to understand something about the cultural life of Washington, D. C.
TMH: And with the digitization of information, will one be able to access manuscripts from anywhere, or will they still have to go to the physical place?
GP: Well, it’s going to depend, for quite a while, on what type of document you’re interested in. And, furthermore, if you were on your computer and downloaded a manuscript, you wouldn’t necessarily have the tools to make sense of that manuscript. In other words, the library is still obliged and interested in providing you with what you need to understand. So access is a complicated matter. If you look, for instance, at an early printed book online, it’s going to look a little odd: the spelling will be odd, the typeface will be a little odd. So one of the libraries obligations is not only providing access, but the tools for understanding.
TMH: What do you find so interesting about Shakespeare and what is his continued appeal?
GP: Well, Shakespeare is pretty omnipresent. As I said, if you’re a student in high school you can’t escape Shakespeare. Our society has enshrined Shakespeare in this special place. Here are these plays that have some of the most beautiful language in our history. Language that is memorable, language that gives us things to think about, ways of being moved, characters that are larger than life or that at some moments in our lives seem to speak to us and for us. There’s a kind of magic about the plays and they will change over time.
TMH: What led you to some of the conclusions regarding “King Leer”?
GP: The focus of my talk is King Leer and the outdoors. From one point of view, it’s quite obvious. He’s turned outdoors; he’s an aged man; and there he is getting blown about by the wind and rained on. And there is no explanation, but in fact, the Elizabethans had a fairly different notion about the relationship of the human body and its place in the natural world. It’s a bit of an analysis of their place in their environment, and it links up with our issues of our place in our environment, because we’re very self-conscious about our interactions with the natural world. So, on the one hand, there is everything to say that there is nothing unobvious about how you’re going to feel out in the storm. But, if you dig a little deeper, trying to understand what Elizabethan’s thought of “where does weather come from” and “who is responsible for the weather.” One of the beliefs that the Elizabethans might have had was that natural disasters were caused by God. One answer was “we’re being punished/God punished us.” We actually don’t believe that anymore…. One of the answers that this play gives is that it is no more natural in this world to be cruel. Cruelty is just as natural as kindness. Shakespeare’s answer in this play to “where does cruelty come from and where does pain on another human being come from?”
TMH: What do you hope to see for the future of Folger? And where do you hope it goes?
GP: I hope that Folger raises, you know, just oodles of money so it continues to buy rare books, and there is always something that we are not going to get. And that’s always a frustration when we fail to get materials that I believe belong in the collection safe, out of harms way, with access for scholars. But ultimately, I think the short answer to your question is accessibility on a whole variety of platforms, for more and more people to have access to the Folger. We did, for example, what we call a virtual field trip, or an online field trip. 321,000 high school kids were online with us one day last spring, kids from all over the country. So if you were in Las Vegas, we did a program in which you were watching a live tour of the Folger library hosted by two high school kids. It was great.
And we wanna do more of that. It was just so much fun. We asked a bunch of questions, so it was this interactive thing. We calculated the answers; Google Moderator did it. And then they would send in questions and we would have online answers, live answers. One of the questions was, “If you were casting Romeo and Juliet, who would be your Romeo?” And you know what the answer is, from America’s high schools. Justin Bieber. I think we’re in trouble. Yup, Justin Bieber. I mean Leonardo DiCaprio, way better by comparison! Maybe a little too old now. Justin Bieber, isn’t that hilarious?
TMH: That’s really interesting. What else happened?
GP: We took them down into this vault, into the rare book vault. We did a comparison of two early texts of “Romeo and Juliet” in the reading room. And then we had actors preparing a scene of MacBeth, and the students interviewing them. You know, how do you prepare the scene between Lady MacBeth and MacBeth? We were bringing out the champagne, I have to tell you, it was like, “Yes! We did it!” It was a great experiment, and I hope we do it again because it was so fun.
TMH: How long did it take you to prepare for that day?
It took a long time. It was a lot of staff work, a lot of getting the high schools. First, we thought it was gonna be 50,000 kids. And that would’ve been fine, we would’ve thought that 50,000 was a total triumph. But people found out about it, and teachers asked if they could upload, download whatever to get the program live for their students. It was just hugely, hugely successful, way more than we thought. We’re gonna do it again.
TMH: And maybe include universities? Or is it more geared to high school students?
GP: Well, this was very much geared toward high school students. If we did it with a university, it would be a different program, I think. But the idea is, nevertheless, a great idea. And then, if somebody comes to Washington, they can say, “Hey can I go see the Folger library?” You know, just bring them in. I think the future of the Folger library is happening because we are embracing technology, just the way a lot of institutions are embracing technology. You must, and you should. Technology is, if humans get technology to do what they want it to. There are way too many people in the humanities setting saying this is the enemy. No it’s the friend, or servant.