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Shining a Light on the Other Playwrights of Shakespeare's Day

A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama is a Who’s Who of Shakespeare’s competitors, colleagues, and drinking buddies, from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson to others who are little-known now. With information on more than 400 English plays by early modern authors, the site offers a full picture of Renaissance professional drama.

To celebrate Shakespeare’s 453rd birthday in April 2017, the Los Angeles Times spotlighted a free, ambitious, and brand-new Folger offering. A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama (EMED, for short) is a large, searchable digital resource on the hundreds of commercial plays by the other authors of Shakespeare’s time—including dozens of newly edited play texts.

The Folger has already made the texts of Shakespeare’s plays freely available online through Folger Digital Texts. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, EMED builds on this by opening the door to a range of other playwrights, some of whom were his rivals, collaborators, and friends.

The Los Angeles Times starts by describing a few of them:

One was a roguish figure and possible spy, stabbed to death after a mysterious arrest. Another wrote works of biting and often cynical satire. A third wrote only a few plays before dying in his early 30s, but not after penning some of the finest, and still startling, works of Elizabethan erotica.

Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Nashe—despite the best efforts of high school and college English teachers—remain also-rans compared with William Shakespeare.

A number of these writers’ works are still known and performed today, although far less often than Shakespeare’s works; many other plays are essentially unknown. EMED offers a newly accessible way to read them all—and to get a sense of the bustling theater world that produced them. Its resources portray “this whole vibrant scene, which helps us understand Shakespeare’s world, and that helps us understand Shakespeare,” says Kathleen Lynch, executive director of the Folger Institute.

Drawing on playbooks from multiple rare books libraries, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, EMED builds on previous digitization projects as it marshals freshly edited texts—and new tools that explore early modern English drama as a whole, rather than one play at a time.

The project includes over 400 surviving plays from the first era of London theater—from 1576, when the first purpose-built theater was constructed, to 1642, when the theaters were closed due to the English Civil War. Although still more plays from that period were likely never printed, or were printed but no longer exist, this large surviving body of plays offers rich evidence of the theater scene in which Shakespeare flourished.

These printed playbooks are important parts of “the first great era of media revolution”—the dawn of inexpensive, printed books—says Folger Shakespeare Library Director Mike Witmore. “Digital media is the second great wave, and making this material available in digital form is part of our mission.”

Directed by the Folger Institute with staff from the library and digital media and access departments, the EMED project is edited by Meaghan Brown, fellow for data curation, Elizabeth Williamson, encoding fellow, and Michael Poston, data architect, who were aided by other Folger staff members, an extensive team of scholarly advisors, and a flexible online platform and website produced by the Roy Rozensweig Center for History and New Media at Virginia’s George Mason University.

As a digital resource, it is available at no cost around the world, and offers many new points of entry for its diverse plays. EMED includes a wealth of searchable, specific data for the 403 plays, from authors and publishers to dates of first performance and printing and more, as well as fully edited texts, some still in progress, for several dozen plays. Both the texts and the data can be downloaded. A research section provides additional information about this data, and the project puts the plays in context with numerous links to other digital resources on editorial and performance history. Teachers may also find classroom exercises and lesson plans on the plays and related digital humanities projects that EMED makes possible. Over thirty of the plays are also available as page-by-page digital facsimiles.

Whether you are a reader, a playgoer, a performer, a scholar, a student, a teacher, or simply an enthusiast, there is much here for you to explore.

This article is from the Winter 2018 issue of  Folger Magazine.