Bruce R. Smith

If we haven't observed it for ourselves, pundits from a variety of vantage points keep telling us that we live in a culture dominated by visual communication. A vast array of information today is transmitted, not by printed books, but by film, video, and electronic media. Teachers at all levels, at all kinds of institutions, have noted their students' sophistication at talking about visual media, in contrast to their relative naïveté and confusion when it comes to media which are complexly verbal, such as Shakespeare's plays.

In their original productions, Shakespeare's plays were highly charged visual and aural events. The languages of staging, costuming, and gesturing can not signify when a student reads the play simply as a text. But even if a play is encountered through performance, the import of those languages has changed, and new codes of signification have been introduced by the medium of transmission. "Shakespeare in an Age of Visual Culture," a series of seminars convened at the Folger Shakespeare Library during the 1998-99 academic year, was designed to address the problems of interpretation that are met in the classroom when texts-in this case texts that simultaneously enjoy an iconic status in our cultural heritage and demonstrably have an ever changing history of reception-are filtered through various media that are defined by their own generic conventions and convey the values of their own cultural moments. Under the direction of Bruce R. Smith, Professor of English at Georgetown University, sixteen participants from sixteen American and British universities convened for four two-day sessions, each devoted to a different medium: electronic communication, film and video, stage productions, and printed images. Visiting faculty included Claire Farago of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Randall Nakayama of San Francisco State University, Stephen Orgel of Stanford University, and Lois Potter of the University of Delaware.

You are invited to explore the big issues that were addressed across all four sessions, as well as the individual media that interest you. You'll also find a bibliography of books and articles concerning each medium, as well as an overview of the Folger exhibition, "Seeing What Shakespeare Means," that was scheduled to coincide with the seminar's session on printed images. Everyone connected with the series would like to thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Alvin Kernan, Senior Adviser in the Humanities, for the foundation's generous support of the project. And to you as a visitor to this website we say, happy prospecting. 

Web pages designed and posted by Martha Fay.
All scans courtesy of Folger photographer Julie Ainsworth unless otherwise noted.