Creating the MOOC ‘Shakespeare: Print and Performance’

Erica Moulton, MA student in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London shares some of the treasures explored in the new MOOC, ‘Shakespeare: Print and Performance’. This MOOC was developed by King’s College London, in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe and the British Library.

How do we get closer to Shakespeare? In a year dubbed Shakespeare400 in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616, we certainly hear his name a lot. But when we talk about the man and his plays, what do we really mean? As part of the Shakespeare: Print and Performance MOOC team, I was able to go behind the scenes both at the British Library and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London to explore how his plays were printed and performed in his day.

Deep in the British Library archives are volumes and manuscripts, including the first printed book in English, William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, which dates back to 1473. The book trade in England flourished in the next two centuries, and by the time Shakespeare was writing plays for the King’s Company to perform at the Globe in 1599, publishers and printers alike recognized the market potential of Shakespeare’s plays. Before 1600, there were over a dozen quarto editions of his plays published in London, many of them printed in multiple editions, including Romeo and Juliet.

However, Shakespeare likely had nothing to do with the printing and distribution of his own plays, and at first many of these printed editions did not even bear his name. For instance, Romeo and Juliet was printed in 1597 and then again in 1599.

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The “first quarto”, sometimes called the “bad quarto” is often thought to be a memorial reconstruction rather than based on Shakespeare’s own “foul papers”, a fact that the printer of the second quarto draws attention to when he writes that his edition is “newly corrected, augmented, and amended” in 1599.

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As Shakespeare’s name and reputation as a playwright grew, publishers and booksellers began to use his name on the title pages of his plays (and even on plays that he did not write). It was a full seven years after his death that two of the players from his company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, compiled his works for the First Folio in 1623.

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During his lifetime, Shakespeare’s focus remained on the playhouse, or playhouses, as was the case when his company finally acquired the right to perform at Blackfriars in 1608. After that, they split their time between the indoor Blackfriars during the winter and the Globe in the summer. Next to the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, a reconstruction based on drawings of an indoor playhouse was finished in 2014 and called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

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Photo credit: Shakespeare’s Globe.

In this intimate theatre, modern day actors and musicians discover how the conditions of performance, including the small stage, elevated musicians’ gallery and candlelight, influence the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ plays can be performed for a modern audience. We used the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with the kind permission of the Globe, to film some lessons for the MOOC. I think this will give learners an insight into what it is like to watch a performance taking place in the space.

The performance history of Shakespeare’s plays is one of the main subjects of an exhibition currently running at the British Library called “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”. The exhibition contains many documents of performance from recent productions and films as well as documents regarding playhouses in Shakespeare’s London. The exhibition bridges the divide between print and performance, a task which the upcoming Shakespeare MOOC hopes to do as well.

If we can understand how print and performance functioned in Shakespeare’s day, as well as our own, we will become more perceptive and impassioned consumers of his plays. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Shakespeare, in print and performance, you can sign up to take our free, short course here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/shakespeare

The course starts in September 2016.