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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

The Many Lives of John Donne

with Katherine Rundell

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 218

We talk with author Katherine Rundell about the extraordinary life—or should we say lives?—of John Donne, who wrote some of the 17th century’s most complex and intellectually dazzling poetry. Rundell, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and the author of Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne takes us through Donne’s evolution from hotshot poet to penniless prisoner to rock star preacher. Rundell is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is out now in paperback from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She has also written six novels for children, a book for adults about children’s books, and a nonfiction book about the wonder of animals called The Golden Mole. Her latest fantasy novel, Impossible Creatures, comes out later this month.

From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 12, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leo Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Shakespeare and the Ocean, with Steve Mentz

Photo by Nina Subin.



MICHAEL WITMORE: On this week’s episode: the many lives of poet John Donne.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

The Folger is best known for its Shakespeare collection, but we actually have a lot of other material from Shakespeare’s time. Like the letters of poet and preacher John Donne. Donne wrote some of the most complex and intellectually dazzling poetry of the 17th century… and the Folger’s collection includes a third of all Donne’s existing letters. Like Shakespeare, Donne didn’t leave behind any journals or papers, and he destroyed all the letters he received, so this one-way correspondence is essential reading for anyone attempting to trace Donne’s life.

But what a life. Born into a Catholic family at a perilous time, Donne witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of Catholics at close range.

As a young man at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Inns of Court, Donne gained notoriety for poetry that bent rules of genre and taste. His love poetry still stuns with its brilliant wit and earthy allure. But Donne didn’t want the life of a poet—he aimed for a position among the country’s elite.

Donne’s secret marriage to Anne More doomed those hopes. Her father was against the match, and Donne’s employer fired him. The Donnes endured years of poverty.

But that’s not where his story ends. Having converted to the Church of England, Donne entered the priesthood, and became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a job for a star, and Donne didn’t disappoint. His sermons became famous, drawing enormous crowds.

Author Katherine Rundell tells Donne’s extraordinary story in a new biography, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She has also written six novels for children, a book for adults about children’s books, and a nonfiction book about the wonder of animals called The Golden Mole.

Here’s Katherine Rundell, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Donne isn’t exactly an obscure figure, but you do caution in your introduction that letting him fall slowly out of our common consciousness would be “as foolish as discarding a kidney or a lung.” Strong words. Why do we need him so much, and why, especially, do we need him now?

KATHERINE RUNDELL: I think we need him now because he lived at a time that is in many ways, of course, remarkably unlike our own. But in other ways, I think he has in him lessons for the current age that we could carry with us.

For instance, he lived at a time of turmoil, of plague, of unrest, of radical new invention, of shift. If you read the whole of his body of work, you see him as someone who could hold opposing positions tightly together in the same hand. I think we probably live in an age in which that is urgently necessary.

BOGAEV: In the sense that Shakespeare does?

RUNDELL: Yes. A little different, I think, in that Donne’s intensity is personal. For instance, Donne makes the argument that he experienced dread and horror very deeply. That he saw a great deal of death, and he knew spite and sorrow.

He lost so many family members. Famously, he was probably taken to see his great uncle hung, drawn, and quartered. He lost multiple children, friends, brothers. He was suicidal.

He was a man who keened often towards death. He wrote the first lengthy treatise on suicide in the English language. He had a sense of us as a horror. He said, “only man of all envenomed things doth work upon itself, with inborn sting.” He had a real sense of us as just a disaster.

But, in the same breath, this was a man who would insist on passion and wonder and love. He was a man who believed that sex might be a way towards eternity. He brought the mind and body joyfully to collide. He had an idea that humanity is so colossal that he says, “Compared unto a man, the world itself is a dwarf. That every human being is larger than the world they stand upon.”

I think, if you look at those two things together—joy and dread—you get something that has in it a kind of liberation. I think that that might be what we need: that doubleness. That sense of, “Yes, we are remarkable. Yes, we are terrible.” That doubleness.

I think there is sometimes a drive towards simplicity in our—in the popular media that we are offered. And I think Donne can be a great countermand to that.

BOGAEV: You know, I think of him—for all the reasons you just laid out—as a great poet to discover when you’re a teenager. When you see the whole universe in the palm of your hand—stoned or not. Then, I read that you discovered it when you were only eight years old. How did that happen?

RUNDELL: Yes, that makes me sound a much more eccentric child. My parents used to put poetry on the bathroom wall next to the mirror where we brushed our teeth, and we were paid to memorize it. Some of it was very child friendly. You know, T. S. Eliot’s Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And some of it was John Donne. I was a horrible mercenary child with no other source of income. So, I memorized dozens and dozens of poems because I had very expensive taste in small plastic dog figurines called “Puppy in my Pocket.”

It wasn’t the licentious verse we were memorizing. It was the songs, some of the sonnets, some of the satire. I didn’t understand it, but I knew that there was something in it. I think my parents stance was, “People have memorized and adored poetry for 3,000 years. Why not make them do it too?”

I am now very grateful that they did. Because what happened was, as I got older, it was like suddenly putting on a pair of spectacles and seeing something which had been blurry in sudden clarity. You know, there are moments through your life when you suddenly realize, “That was what John Donne was talking about.”

BOGAEV: Now, we mentioned Shakespeare; This is a Shakespeare podcast, so I have to take a little bit of a hard turn and say that no one knows for sure if Donne and Shakespeare ever met or read each other’s work. So why should Shakespeare fans keep listening?

RUNDELL: Right. So, two reasons. One of them is Shakespeare was certainly admired by Donne. We know that Donne was a great frequenter of plays. We know that he went to see at least some Shakespeare plays, probably Richard III and Twelfth Night. We know that they had mutual friends. Both of them were gossiped about relentlessly by Ben Jonson in those famous conversations with Drummond.

I think Donne probably would have felt himself a step above Shakespeare, because Donne was profoundly class conscious in a way that many sort of disenfranchised Catholics were.

So, I think they were two very different voices moving through almost precisely the same atmosphere, the same brothels, the same bear-baiting, the same machinations at court. The same need for nuance and care in what you said. The same state that read and censored your letters. The same space for staggering artistic innovation.

I think reading Donne throws Shakespeare into sharp relief because those are two ways that two of the greatest geniuses of the age went. Shakespeare into, you know, his big, bold, aria-like pieces, as well as his wit, his stichomythic exchange. And then, in Donne, you get something more convoluted, more intellectual. Because of course, Donne was writing for people who could sit and puzzle over his work. Whereas Shakespeare, of course, was largely writing with a need to grab you by the wrist and dig a bulldog clip into your heart immediately.

So, I think to read them together, you will get the finest picture of the age that you can muster.

BOGAEV: Okay. So that’s a really persuasive argument. Do you imagine you see Shakespeare’s influence in Donne? Or even Donne’s influence in Shakespeare, even though we don’t know whether Shakespeare read him?

RUNDELL: I think… It’s difficult to know if it’s Shakespeare or if it’s the Renaissance theater and its energy and sort of galvanizing engine more generally, but there is a theatricality in Donne’s poems. Those who are familiar with them will know that you are often dropped into the middle of a dialogue where you hear just one side of the conversation.

Whether that’s the flea, where Donne is addressing a woman—an unknown woman, probably, realistically, an imaginary woman—and pointing out the flea that is leaping between their two bodies. Or whether it’s something like, “Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,” in “To His Mistress Going to Bed. “O my America! My new-found-land.”

I think there is a very real power of the stage that has got into Donne’s poetry. Then, the other way round, you know, I would love to know if Shakespeare’s read Donne.

Donne, of course, didn’t publish very much. There are a few printed poems, but the vast majority was spread outwards in a kind of ripple of contagion of poetry. There would be one poem and that would be copied and copied and copied by hundreds of people. Whether one of those copies ever reached its way to Shakespeare, I don’t know. I think it’s likely, but we can’t prove it yet.

BOGAEV: Well, you’ve already led us to the flea. So, why don’t we remind everyone. Could you read it for us?

RUNDELL: Absolutely. It is one of my favorite Donne poems and it is full of brilliant multilingual puns. And it starts like this:

“Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea are two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.”

The poem is quite long. Would you like me to read all of it?

BOGAEV: No, that’s good. That’s good. Just give us a taste. Remind us.

RUNDELL: Then, of course, it ends with the woman squashing the flea under her fingernail. And often Donne’s licentious verse does end with a failure. These are not always successful seductions that are going on in Donne’s poetry.

BOGAEV: I mean, leading with a flea. That’s a gambit.

RUNDELL: Exactly. I think, you know, I get asked by my students—one of the things you get asked most is, “So, was he really sleeping with all these women? Are these real women? Was he really writing these poems for women?”

And, of course, we increasingly think, almost certainly, the woman to whom the Flea is addressed is imaginary. The poem is probably for Donne’s circle of brilliant poetry-writing male companions, that they were engaging in a kind of poetic merry-go-round in which they would write poems and send them to each other and play upon each other’s previous work.

One of the things that you find whenever you’re working in an archive for anyone, really, is little evidences of in-jokes that we have no way of decoding.
Little obviously jokey spellings or references to previous conversations.

Of course, the idea of a flea and a woman was not an original thought. It had been very popular in France for the hundred years preceding it. But what Donne does to make it new is he imagines it moving between both their bodies, and that does seem to be fresh.

BOGAEV: So, this is like 17th-century memes?

RUNDELL: Exactly that. Then, of course, because it’s Donne, there’s always more. So, for instance, in French, “flea” is “puce” and “pucelle” is “maidenhood.” And in English, “pucelle” would have been translated at the time as “whore,” as an insult. He absolutely expects you to know that. When he says, “Nor loss of maidenhead,” he expects you to enjoy a kind of multilingual joke there.

BOGAEV: It is kind of funny to think of this as, you know, all these guys yucking it up over the flea poem.

RUNDELL: Exactly. And you know, the other thing I think that’s worth remembering is, what else were they going to do? Poetry was such a huge part of Renaissance culture. I used to teach the Shakespeare paper at Oxford, and I would always begin by reminding them, you know, poetry wasn’t just, as it is now, a very minority sport. You know, back then, every single educated young man would have written poetry, both at school, under duress—But, also, poetry could be so many things. It could be flirtation and seduction. It could be revenge. It could be an invoice, a thank you letter, a supplication, a form of propaganda, a way to pass the time. It was absolutely riven through the days and weeks and months of Renaissance experience.

I think it’s really useful to think about both Donne and Shakespeare in that context. That they were doing what everyone else was doing, but they were doing it spectacularly better and were recognized as such in their time.

I think it’s always worth remembering what both Shakespeare and Donne were coming from. Because, of course, the previous tradition of courtly love of propriety, you know, Sir Philip Sidney comparing his mistress’s shoulders to two white doves, and Walter Raleigh comparing Queen Elizabeth to a white dove. You end up thinking, “Well, other bird metaphors are available.” But you know, it was a different age, and they burned through it with their originality.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and one aspect of that deeper project that you write about that Donne was engaged in is, he was writing—as you put it—he was writing into being a new ideal of a complete meshing of body and imagination.

The example that you keep coming back to throughout the book is the elegy that he wrote for 14-year-old Elizabeth Drury. “One might almost say, her body thought,” is one line. You write that this is key to understanding Donne’s uniqueness. How so? And, remind us of this elegy.

RUNDELL: Absolutely. The elegy is a slightly peculiar piece of writing that he printed, which made it unusual. It is a wildly hyperbolic vision of a young woman who had died, and her family had asked him to write an elegy for her. In fact, it came under some criticism as being madly too hyperbolic. It was said, had it been of the Virgin Mary it would have been something.

But I think that is interesting in itself, in that Donne is a profoundly hyperbolic poet. I think it is that his intellectual energy yearns towards extremes. If he’s laying out his ideal, and his ideal is exactly that, “One might almost say, her body thought,” it then makes a lot of sense of a lot of his love poetry. Not so much the licentious verse, but the stuff which is written perhaps to woo, or written perhaps to explain love to himself, you know? He writes, “This ecstasy doth unperplex,” and I think that vision of sex as an answer to a question that cannot be articulated but is asked throughout life, was something that he found urgently necessary.

You also see it in the hyperbole of his other verse, you know, something like, “The Sun Rising,” “She’s all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is.” That sense of totality. He wants the body and the mind to meet. He wants, when they meet, for it to be a species of overwhelm that only humanity is capable of. I think that’s one of the reasons he survived: that vivid questing spirit.

BOGAEV: It is a little self-selective, though, what we read of him. Because he had that early love poetry that you—as you described—he was writing just privately for his swaggering, his guy friends. Then you have this elegy that he did publish. And then you have… I mean, these poems that we do read now. Are they rough drafts, or are they scraps and bits and bobs that have survived?

RUNDELL: That’s so difficult to know. We wish that we had, say, even a single version of one of the major love poems in his own handwriting where we could see how many drafts it took him. How many takes did it take to get, say, something like “Love’s Growth?” But we don’t. We only have one poem in his own handwriting in English and one in Latin.

What we have are other people’s copies of his verse. We know that once he had written these poems, Isaac Walton, his biographer, writes that they were scattered. Too carelessly scattered. He treated his poems as mere nothings and he cast them away from him. Then, later in life, when he thought once about publishing them, he couldn’t get them back and he didn’t have first drafts himself.

Then, secondly, when he was about to take orders, he tried to gather them up again. Because, of course, there’s a hell of a lot of penis metaphors out there, which might not look good on the Dean of St. Paul’s. Again, he found it impossible. The poems had spread beyond his reach.

BOGAEV: You did mention earlier he had such a tragic life. And perhaps because he was born Catholic, or definitely because he was born Catholic, that added to it. But why don’t we get deep into his bio now. Run down for us all of the adversity he faced. And it’s just death, death, death, death.

RUNDELL: It is. There is so much death that by the end of his life, if you picture him walking down the road, he is followed by a, you know, a Thanksgiving parade of ghosts. It is a remarkable life.

Of course, death was something that the Renaissance knew far more intimately than we did. You know, it would be very unusual to reach adulthood and not have seen a corpse.

But Donne was unusual, in part because of his Catholic upbringing. He was brought up with a very familial knowledge of what it was to die of your faith. He went first to university, very young, to Oxford, and then to the Inns of Court as a young man. And, there, he seems to have erupted into a kind of gleeful boyishness. He was master of the revels. He organized dances and parties. He wrote some of his satires and the beginning of his rakish pose. He was fantastically good-looking, as we know, which is probably significant in the way his life panned out.

But, his little brother followed shortly after him, a boy called Henry. Henry was probably understood to broadly be under Donne’s care, because he was his little brother. But, Henry chose to harbor a Catholic priest in his rooms at the Inns of Court. These rooms were very small, so how Henry ever expected to get away with this is unclear, but he was very young. A priest hunter discovered this priest in his rooms, and under torture, Henry betrayed him and said that he was a priest and did shrive him.

The priest was then hung, drawn, and quartered. Henry was thrown into jail. And there was plague racing through this jail. As far as we know, Donne didn’t visit him, presumably not knowing that there was not time to waste. So, Henry died alone, unvisited, of plague, in a matter of days, at the age of 19.

BOGAEV: He seemed to have nine lives. I mean, you describe how he hired on to crew an expedition against Spain under the Earl of Essex. And all of these adventures then brought him into the sphere of someone who, you described, changed his life forever. Tell us about Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and what he meant to Donne’s career.

RUNDELL: Thomas Egerton was one of the most powerful men in England, the most powerful lawyer, whose job it was essentially to oversee the law of the land.

Donne went to work for him. In precisely which position is not entirely clear. He probably wasn’t one of his secretaries because his handwriting just wasn’t good enough, but he had some intimate position in Sir Thomas Egerton’s household that gave Donne status and money. Enough, at least, to be a kind of dashing young man about town in a good hat and a good moustache.

It also introduced him to Anne Moore, the woman he would go on to marry. Because Anne Moore was Sir Thomas Egerton’s niece by marriage. When Donne went to live with Sir Thomas Egerton, Anne was there.

I think it is an interesting thing to think what that would have been like for her. Somebody so remarkable in his beauty. He would have had a reputation already for one of the great wits of the age. She may have seen some of his poetry. It would have been passing around the sort of smart set to which she was peripherally belonging. We know that at some point in the next three years, he persuaded her to marry him,

Donne was immediately thrown in jail, in prison. It was said to be carpeted with lice. When they got out, he had no job. He had immediately been sacked and they had no money. They lived in a succession of small, poor, cold houses.

He knew frustration, and doubt, and regret, and he was suicidal for a great deal of his life. They had 12 children, six of whom died, two were stillborn. Then Anne died at 32. As he grew older, his friends died, and he wrote over and over about his longing for death. He was a man who suffered bleak surges of sorrow and misery and fury. I think that is a key part of his intellectual makeup.

BOGAEV: Wow. Okay, so somewhere in there also, he converted to Protestantism. Then, we come to a second act where he becomes a great sermonizer, a clergyman. So how did that happen?

RUNDELL: Again, this is one of the central boxing fights of Donne studies. How far was it just expediency, because he couldn’t get any other kind of work, and he understood that the church could be a place where a spotlight might shine on his particular brand of theatrical intelligence? And how far was it a true conversion first to Protestantism, and secondly, a true desire to preach? A true desire to quest for God?

I think, you know, with the book, I try to offer both options. But, one interesting thing is that in recent years we have come to redate some of the letters that he was writing when he started trying to become a priest. Those letters suggest that Donne worked at it for longer than we thought. It wasn’t just a whim. It wasn’t a sudden breaking point. He was pushing and pushing.

My inclination would be to give him benefit of the doubt of some sincerity. How much? I don’t know. But, if you read the holy sonnets, it’s very likely that he wrote those before he was ordained, and they do read like the work of someone who is not just searching but desperate for God. You know, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”

All we do know is that in 1615, at the age of 42, he was ordained and it totally changed his life again. He rose swiftly, first to be a King’s chaplain, and then ultimately to be one of the most powerful preachers in England, the Dean of St. Paul’s.

BOGAEV: Yeah, you call it a fantastic piñata of a job. [LAUGHTER] I mean, it really—it does sound like being that kind of priest is the path to becoming a rock star and Donne was the ultimate rock star. As if priests were like Vegas headliners or something at the time.

RUNDELL: Right. I mean, people would crowd to hear him speak in their hundreds, in their thousands. The book opens with an account of him speaking at Lincoln’s Inn to consecrate a new chapel. There was such a great crush of people coming to hear him speak that it said two or three of them were taken up dead for the time. Which doesn’t mean actually dead, it just means unconscious.

People came from miles to hear him preach. They would take notes on his sermons. They would send them to friends. They would argue about them. They would debate them. He was said to be able to charm the soul of his listeners.

The preaching he did, much of it was very much in line with the doctrine of the day. If you were the Dean of St. Paul’s, you were fundamentally expected to toe the line and to offer what was occasionally essentially palace propaganda from the pulpit. But, there were also moments of remarkable vulnerability. That’s one of the things I love about him, that he admits his own faults in the pulpit. And that, I think, is unusual.

There’s this beautiful passage where he stands up in front of them and he acknowledges that he cannot himself always control his mind in prayer.

He says, “I throw myself down in my chamber and I call in and invite God and his angels thither. And when they’re there, I ignore God and his angels for the noise of a fly, the rattling of a coach, the whining of a door, a memory of yesterday’s pleasure, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in my ear, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera… troubles me in prayer.”

I think that’s remarkable in its honesty.

BOGAEV: I think it’s so interesting that you tell the story of his life as a series of transformations. Because we’ve talked about his early incarnation, the early, kind of, randy poet impression. Then you have this second life where he becomes a clergyman.

But the way you describe it, you say that he would have liked the trans- prefix that we use. What was it about that that made him such a great lover of transformation and a transformer?

RUNDELL: I think he had a sense of the quicksilver nature of humanity. And of course, I was thinking of it partly just in the sense that he was a man who was able to endlessly reinvent himself. Reinvention is part of the human condition.

But this was a man who went Catholic to Protestant. You know, rake to Dean of St. Paul’s. Poverty stricken and an outsider in any kind of elite society to a man who was right at the heart of it, you know, dining with the king.

I think he also had a sense of us as things that are, because alive, always changing. Some of that quality comes out in some of the sermons. Some of the poetry. Just has a sense of humanity as this strange animal.

You know, he writes about transubstantiation, transformation. He talks about love as a form of transformation. Death as a form of final, great, joyful transformation. I think he was a man who believed that here we are, we are never just one thing.

BOGAEV: You know, I was thinking about another book that you published last year. A beautiful book called The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure. It’s a celebration of some of the most fascinating, endangered creatures on Earth. It’s like a bestiary, really, a book of animals from Donne’s time. We have a lot of those lovely big books at the Folger, you know, so I was really enjoying it. But, I was also wondering whether we’re to think of Donne like a golden mole. Like this amazing and unusual life form. A marvelous creature.

RUNDELL: I think so. I think Donne would be a good addition to that bestiary in that he was utterly himself. As you notice, there is some overlap between those two books in that the golden mole is described as autapomorphic, which is a technical term meaning completely unique characteristics that have evolved in only one species or subspecies.

You know, I think Donne was, you know, super autapomorphic. I think he was so rare because of his capacity for vividness. For contradiction. For being able to hold his joy and his dread so close.

Also, I guess, the book has in it a desire to argue for the need for attention. For attention as a form of human devotion and a form of human politics. That our attention is a necessity if we are not to destroy the world.

Donne, we know, was a little obsessed by the idea of human attention and the power of the human imagination. He says, “Creatures that are born giants that reach from east to west, from heaven to earth, that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but bestride—but span the sun and firmament. My thoughts reach all, comprehend all.” I think that is so bound up with attention.

And there’s this sermon that I quote at the end of the book where he says, “Between the prison and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And yet we sleep all the way from the womb to the grave. We are never thoroughly awake.”

And that “awake,” I think, is the thing that Donne wants from us. He just wants the totality of your intellectual capacity. He wants all of it.

BOGAEV: Such a delight to talk with you. I really, really enjoyed it. Thank you.

RUNDELL: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it hugely.


WITMORE: That was Katherine Rundell, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is out now in paperback from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Rundell’s latest fantasy novel, Impossible Creatures, comes out later this month.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, D.C. has been under construction for the past three years. But we’re looking forward to fully opening our doors again in 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.