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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare and the British Royal Family, with Gordon McMullan

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 175

Shakespeare wrote a lot about English kings and queens. Over the last three hundred years, a lot of English kings and queens have gotten really into Shakespeare.

Our guest Gordon McMullan is the Principal Investigator of Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family, a new online exhibition that examines the long relationship between Shakespeare and the British royal family. That includes queens pretending to love Shakespeare as much as they thought Elizabeth I did, princes patterning themselves after Hal, and kings writing melancholy marginalia in copies of The Complete Works. McMullan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Explore the exhibition Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family

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FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Shakespeare and the British Royal Family, with Gordon McMullan

Gordon McMullanGordon McMullan is a Professor of English and Director of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 28, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Say, What Art Thou That Talk’st of Kings and Queens?” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Henry VI, Part 1
Get to know Prince Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play, available online for free from The Folger Shakespeare.

Folger Finds: A Carved Oak Casket for Shakespeare’s First Folio
This casket from the Folger’s collection, carved out of wood from Herne’s Oak, appears in the exhibition.

Charles I’s Second Folio
Take a closer look at a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works featuring annotations by Kings Charles I and George III.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare wrote a lot about English kings and queens. And you know who liked his plays? A lot of English kings and queens.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. There’s a new, online exhibit that we really think you should check out. It was supposed to be an actual exhibit on display at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, but the pandemic had other plans.

The topic is the way, over the centuries, that the British Royal Family has used Shakespeare to shore up its legitimacy. Whether it’s queens pretending to love Shakespeare as much as they thought Elizabeth I did, whether it’s Princes of Wales hanging out with Falstaffian wastrels, whether it’s kings writing plaintive marginalia in copies of The Complete Works, the British Royals have leaned on Shakespeare in fascinating and unusual ways, as this exhibit makes abundantly clear.

The team that put the exhibit together was led by Gordon McMullan, Director of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London. They called it Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family and Gordon joined us recently to talk about this remarkable synergy.

We call this podcast “Say, What Art Thou That Talk’st Of Kings And Queens?” Gordon McMullan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, the exhibit displays the story of royal interest in Shakespeare from 1714 to 1945. Why those specific years? Is there something special about that period or those royals that make those years the focus of your work?

GORDON MCMULLAN: Well, the project is bookended by the arrival of George I on the throne. He only spoke German, didn’t speak English, and we feel that that marks a moment at which the acquisition of an association with Shakespeare begins to have value for the royal family.

1945 we chose partly because of a performance of Olivier’s Henry V film at Windsor Castle, but partly also because we are a partnership with the Royal Collection Trust and royal household. People tend to get very uncomfortable if you start talking about living royals.

BOGAEV: Ah, you anticipated my question, whether the crown or the official royal bureaucracy have any stipulations about what could or couldn’t be addressed in the exhibit?

MCMULLAN: We had some interesting negotiations, should we say. It’s been fascinating because the original project began when the Royal Librarian got in touch with me back in 2016. I was… at that point, they were running—putting together the Shakespeare 400 season in London. And the then-Royal Librarian got in touch to ask if their little exhibition on Shakespeare at Windsor Castle might be part of it. And it was this that led…

BOGAEV: Wait, you got a call out of the blue from the Royal Librarian?

MCMULLAN: I got an email out of the blue from the Royal Librarian, yes, that’s right, which I wasn’t expecting, I freely admit. Did I want to come into the Royal Library to see what they had? Well, sure, I’ve never been to the Royal Library.

BOGAEV: In Windsor.

MCMULLAN: In Windsor, yes, that’s right—

BOGAEV: Oh no, I think I’m washing my hair that day. I can’t come. [LAUGHTER]

MCMULLAN: Exactly! —which was Henry VII’s bedroom and Elizabeth I’s walking gallery, so it has a little bit of depth to it, as a space! We then realized that they had an astonishing number of Shakespeare-related objects.

I worked with a post-doc, Sally Barnden. There are two postdocs involved in this project who have really done the bulk of the work, Sally Barnden and Kirsten Tambling. Sally did a lot of work sitting in the Royal Library and the Royal Archive, discovering roughly 1,500 objects that connect the royal family and Shakespeare, the Shakespearean afterlife.

BOGAEV: Oh, that must’ve been so amazing for you. I mean, I’m just thinking, I got to tour the rare book vault under the Folger, and it just blew my mind. What was the biggest thrill or surprise or prize that you found at Windsor?

MCMULLAN: Well, the biggest thrill on that occasion was I was left alone for a moment, and I realized I was standing next to a table with some drawings on it. When I looked a little bit more closely, they were Leonardo’s.


MCMULLAN: It was in fact on that occasion, the most fascinating object, the one that they’re really proud of is the Shakespeare’s Second Folio—“Pah,” as they say at the Folger, “A mere Second Folio”—a Shakespeare Second Folio that was owned by King Charles I and in which he wrote some annotations not long before he was executed.

BOGAEV: Do you remember what they said?

MCMULLAN: He wrote, “Dum spiro spero,” “While I breathe, I hope,” which is something that he actually wrote in a number of the books that he was reading in the last year or so of his imprisonment before his beheading. It makes all the books that he wrote that in into preemptive relics of his martyrdom.


MCMULLAN: And it was then, subsequently annotated, also scribbled in by George III. So, the reason the Royal Collection is so proud of this volume is that it’s annotated by two kings.

BOGAEV: Okay, well, that’s amazing, and it clears up some of the questions around this timeline. I’m thinking that our audience—and I include myself in this—we’re not as knowledgeable about the British monarchy as you all are. So, you’ve been giving some specific instance of the way that the royal family stages Shakespeare history to support their own legitimacy. But maybe you could give us more of the broad overview of how that happens?

MCMULLAN: Well, I don’t think we’re as knowledgeable as you might assume either. I mean, I’m a Shakespearean and an early modernist, so one of the fascinating things about this project has been the realization that the relationship between the royal family and Shakespeare is really one between the royal family and the Shakespearean afterlife.

I mean, we all have this idea, that was in fact cultivated in the 19th century, of Elizabeth I regularly going to the Globe and seeing her favorite playwright’s plays. All nonsense, of course, she never went near a public playhouse. She wasn’t even that fond of theater. James I was far fonder of it.

What you realize, of course, is that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare until after Garrick’s Jubilee, so after 1769. It was really only around the second half of the 18th century that Shakespeare began to be fully constructed as the national poet. Once Shakespeare had begun to acquire this national, somewhat saintly status, at that point there became ideological value for the royal family in aligning themselves with Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And Queen Victoria is an especially good example of that?

MCMULLAN: Well, Victoria did it in a very conscious way, which was the Windsor theatricals: the performances of Shakespeare’s plays that she had performed for her at Windsor Castle.

This began in 1848, which is not an accidental date. 1848, as you’d be aware, was a year of significant revolution across Europe. At this time, there was a sense on the part of some members of the British public that, under the influence of her German husband, Victoria was not as engaged with English culture as she should’ve been. She tended to go see French and other European plays and operas.

And there was an outcry, there were riots. At that time of unrest, in 1848, you can see real value, real, conscious value in being seen as a new Elizabeth I, in that imaginary sense. So, she invited Charles Kean to come and do shows in what was originally quite a small space at Windsor Castle, the room called the Rubens Room, in which a stage was erected.

One of the really enjoyable things about our project is that we worked with Martin Blazeby, who does 3D digital visualizations. He constructed these amazing 3D reconstructions of how the stage would’ve looked in the Rubens Room, and then how it would’ve looked when it was transferred, a little later on, to the much bigger Saint George’s Hall.

These spaces had value for Victoria because she could have certain Shakespeare history plays, Richard II particularly, put on and claim that she was watching her ancestors in the very spaces that they would’ve been in centuries earlier.

BOGAEV: Hmm. It’s brilliant and it’s so studied.

MCMULLAN: There’s an element of spontaneity in it, I suppose. It’s hard to tell. The sense you get…

BOGAEV: I mean, it sounds like such a conscious choice.

MCMULLAN: It is a conscious choice, and yet it doesn’t read that way in the letters. What’s fascinating about it is that you don’t find in the letters she exchanged with her advisors anything quite as overt as I’m making it sound.

And yet the timings are such, and the impact on the public perception of Victoria and Albert, was very marked and the association that it created between the monarchy and a rejuvenated sense of English theater is unmistakable.

BOGAEV: Well, another example of that that you give in the exhibition of this, kind of, statecraft and Shakespeare, there’s an image of a tableau vivant featuring two of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. They’re dressed in the costume of the sons of Henry IV. First, could you explain what a tableau vivant is, and tell the story behind that particular one?

MCMULLAN: Yes, I mean the tableau vivant was a way for, I suppose, people who couldn’t be seen to be actually acting, to put on shows that would remain somehow morally appropriate because they were still. But the tableau vivant involved people dressing up in appropriate costume and posing in a very specific and conscious way.

The logic, I think, is that it was royal domestic behavior to dress up in costumes. So, to dress the kids in medieval costume with a Shakespearean excuse was part of the kind of cumbersome playfulness of royal family life. But again…

BOGAEV: Yeah, it sounds weird now, but it was a thing people did.

MCMULLAN: It was a thing people did, yeah. Absolutely, it was.

BOGAEV: Like playing charades or something.

MCMULLAN: And it was a thing they did over a sustained period. I mean— actually, the image of Prince Arthur and Prince Leopold being Henry IV’s sons, that was actually Victoria’s sons. Then, 30 years later, her grandsons were also photographed in a tableau vivant as the princes in the tower, as Edward IV’s sons. It was something that they repeated across the generations.

BOGAEV: Does this work so well in part because British people, educated British people, know their history through Shakespeare plays?

MCMULLAN: Yes, it’s very much to do with the channeling of English history through Shakespeare. American listeners may assume that the British know the history of their kings and queens. We’re not very good at it, in truth. Those of us who’ve read Shakespeare have a sense of Shakespearean history.

Of course we’re all stuck with the fact that we know that Henry IV came before Henry VI. But we also know the order of the tetralogies, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that Henry VI was sort of further back in time than Henry IV was. So we get into a little loop at times.

But I do think that it was certainly the history plays that were cited and performed most often, which is a curious thing. Yes, you can see the value with giving a sense of the continuity of the monarchy, but at the same time, these…

BOGAEV: But they’re such rogues.

MCMULLAN: Well, quite. And these plays are about regime change, which is not something you’d think you would wish to foreground if you were a reigning monarch.

BOGAEV: Right. Although evoking tragedy, that is a way to elevate the monarchy as well.

MCMULLAN: Absolutely. There is discomfort with the comedies and one of the ongoing tensions is over The Merry Wives of Windsor, Windsor being a royal town. You know, obviously, in due course the current royal family, whose surname was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and who changed that surname during the first World War for very obvious reasons, became Windsor. Now, why did they choose the name Windsor? They could’ve chosen, I suppose, Sandringham or Balmoral; one of the other palaces that they own. It seems fairly clear that the Shakespeare association with Windsor was part of the appeal there.

BOGAEV: I do want to follow up on Charles Kean and the fact that the queen brought Kean to Windsor. How common was that, to get invited to Windsor to stage plays? And did everyone say, “Oh yes, of course?”

MCMULLAN: It wasn’t common at all. There had not been performances at court since the reign of George IV. And it was Albert’s influence; they regularly went to the London theater. But it was not normal. Kean was the actor that she preferred. She liked his shows. But other actors did go, in due course, to Windsor.

BOGAEV: So they were all happy to serve the queen?

MCMULLAN: Well, they were happy up to a point. Not all of them were. There are definite records where some of the actors are going, “Well, you know, I’ve got a good show on that night. I don’t particularly want to have to trek all the way out to Windsor to put a show on in a small space with a very stiff audience.”

BOGAEV: So you could say no?

MCMULLAN: Well, I… yeah, they found ways to say no, because of course, they weren’t being asked directly by the queen, but they were being asked by her sidekick. They could figure out how to say no to the sidekick.

There were ways in which performance in front of the queen wasn’t always ideal, and certainly earlier on there’s an anecdote about Garrick going to perform at court and being absolutely appalled when he realized that the etiquette was that nobody could clap. And so, he was thoroughly cheesed off, because he liked clapping.

BOGAEV: Well, that’s just a dealbreaker. Well, you say that in the exhibit that Kean was famously fastidious about historical accuracy and commissioning elaborate set designs based on detailed historical research. But you put the words “historical accuracy” in quotation marks. Why the air quotes?

MCMULLAN: The air quotes are there because, of course, if you think about performances at the Globe during the first decade or so, and when Mark Rylance was artistic director; they were Original Practices productions, they called them. What that involved was the actors wearing clothing that was true to Shakespeare’s own day, because the theater history made it clear that the performances put on in Shakespeare’s day were mostly done in what, for them, would’ve been modern dress.

Kean’s version, and the 19th-century’s version in general, of authenticity was not dressing the cast in clothing appropriate to 1590 or 1613. It was to dress the cast in costume that they believed was authentic to the medieval period or the early Tudor period that was being represented in the play. Understanding what Kean meant by authenticity is very, very different from what we might mean by it now.

BOGAEV: Well, I have more questions about the history, but I do want to ask you some questions about the presentation of your exhibit online. When you set out to create this website, what were your goals?

MCMULLAN: Well, originally, the plan was to have an actual exhibition at the Globe, at Shakespeare’s Globe, in the exhibition space that they have there. And we were in conversation about how to display the Royal Collection items when COVID got going. We had to do a hasty rethink. Of course, that was massively frustrating, partly because we would’ve had the Globe’s readymade audience coming through in that imaginary summer that never happened.

BOGAEV: Of course, I mean, it must’ve been a little heartbreaking.

MCMULLAN: Oh, more than a little heartbreaking. You can imagine the sleepless nights, can’t you?


MCMULLAN: But we were hardly alone in this. I mean, every grant project I’m aware of has been disrupted, and at least we weren’t scientists whose experiments had to fall apart because they couldn’t go into the lab. So, we don’t consider ourselves too unlucky.

And, of course, the enormous value of the digital exhibition is that it gives this longevity. I mean, the project has produced not only the exhibition, but also an extraordinarily detailed database for all 1,500 of the objects. Sally Barnden and Kirsten Tambling have done the most astonishing work in annotating all that material. So, it works particularly, I think, for your listeners.

I think it will work particularly well to, as it were, toggle between the online exhibition and the database; to go down some of the rabbit holes that you can go down. But I think the fact that we can take the exhibition with us when we go on school visits, for example. We’re not limited to what would’ve been three months in a physical space. But at the same time, you lose difference in scale of the objects, you know. Some of the really enormous items versus the really, really tiny ones.

There’s a very curious photograph of Princess Helena, one of Victoria’s daughters, in a bathing costume, floating on her back. And someone has written “Ophelia” under it, which of course immediately makes an otherwise uninteresting photograph of a royal swimming into a Shakespeare object. That’s actually absolutely tiny. In an exhibition, you would hardly notice it, but you don’t lose its value in a digital exhibition, so “swings and roundabouts,” I think is the expression.

BOGAEV: Hmm, silver linings. You have a section of the exhibit called “Acting Royal,” that focuses on Princes of Wales. Why does it focus on Princes of Wales?

MCMULLAN: One of the things that we kept realizing as we worked on the materials is that the association of the royal family and Shakespeare wasn’t just a general one for the value of the royal family as a whole and for its image. It was also something that informed the identity construction of individual members of the royal family.

You can see from their diaries, you can see from their interests in life, that Shakespeare has had significant value for members of the royal family who obviously were brought up in an extraordinarily strange public environment: where the buildings they’re in are always crowded with people and everyone’s groveling to them. Finding some kind of personal identity can be quite challenging. You can see that they do so, quite often, through Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: So, is Prince Charles part of this tradition?

MCMULLAN: Absolutely. So, there is a particular tradition of princes of Wales associating themselves with Prince Hal. And it goes right from the Georgian princes of Wales, by way of Edward VII, and right up to the current Prince Charles, who has, numerous times, made comments about his sense of feeling like Prince Hal, waiting to become monarch. He was still doing it at the age of 70, a few years ago.

You get the sense that that model, particularly for some of the more profligate Georgian princes of Wales: Frederick—George IV before he became George IV—when he was having affairs with actresses and behaving in all those ways that princes behave. They were all able to associate themselves with Prince Hal because, of course, you know, profligate youth leads to glorious military prowess when he becomes Henry V.

You see, also, the association—weirdly, you see the association of several of these princes of Wales with Falstaff figures.

BOGAEV: Wait, are you saying that this just happens, or that the consciously identify with Prince Hal and then seek out these kind of Falstaffian type?

MCMULLAN: I really can’t say whether it’s conscious or not, but it does seem to be repeated over time. Edward VII’s version of Falstaff was Buffalo Bill. When he came to do his shows in London, he was a larger-than-life character that the prince seemed to gravitate to.

BOGAEV: It doesn’t get more Falstaffian than that.

MCMULLAN: Exactly.

BOGAEV: It does make sense though. I mean, royals, they’re such actors, they’re perhaps the greatest actors of all. I mean, they’re literally symbols playing a part.

MCMULLAN: Absolutely.

BOGAEV: So I suppose it’s natural they’d relate so well to other actors, but it’s also super weird.

ROYAL FAMILY – 8-27-21 [00:20:39]
MCMULLAN: It’s weird, and one of the things that we found instructive was that when we were trying to assemble a press release in conversation with the royal household, one of the phrases that they wanted removing was the idea of royalty as being theatrical.

But of course they’re performing. And, of course, Shakespeare gives a certain cultural legitimacy to the business of performing being a monarch, and Prince Hal is a very good instance of that. He tells us early on that he’s pretending, and there’s nothing wrong with pretending, effectively.

BOGAEV: You know, there’s a part of this exhibit that I thought was so sad, about George III, the Mad King. Tell us about him and his association with Lear.

MCMULLAN: You will perhaps remember from the play and the film [The Madness of King George, by Alan Bennet] the scene when George is reading out plangent moments from King Lear. And when one of the courtiers comes up and realizes that the king is reading King Lear, he says to one of the other sidekicks, “Is this wise?” And this is, in fact, entirely true to life.

George the III’s doctors tried to keep King Lear away from him. They hid the copies of volumes of Shakespeare that had King Lear in. What they didn’t know was that the plays of George Colman, on the shelf in the Royal Library, included an adaptation of King Lear. So, the king got to read Lear anyway, or at least a version of it.

BOGAEV: He was a big collector of Shakespeareana though, right?

MCMULLAN: Yes, he was. It was under George III that the process of rebuilding the Shakespearean aspects of the Royal Collection really got underway. And it’s very much in line with the development, the emergence of Shakespeare as the national poet. It’s an awareness of a hegemonic political construction, the monarchy, gaining value from the cultural hegemony that was developing for Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Another example of this is in your third section, which I guess you could say the royal family seems to get in on the action around Shakespearean relics. Particularly, creating some myths having to do with a relic made of the wood of a tree traditionally identified as Herne’s Oak, which is mentioned at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Again, in the exhibition you’ve put quotation marks around the word “relic,” so why the air quotes there?

MCMULLAN: We looked at the Charles I Folio and at the objects made of Herne’s Oak, and we felt that they both offered instances of what we would call secular relics. An association with a certain kind of constructed spirituality, if you’d like.

So, the process that you can see underway is a gentle conversion of the story of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree—the tree that he had allegedly planted in Stratford that the owner of the house eventually cut down because he was sick of all the tourists turning up to take branches off it—out of which almost as many wooden objects were made as there are relics of the True Cross.

There is a sense of Herne’s Oak, a tree, a mythical tree, in Windsor Great Park, being quietly and gently converted into a Shakespearean relic by the royal family as a way to make a connection between Shakespeare, Windsor, and themselves. So, to translate that Stratford sainthood to Windsor. So, a number of objects…

BOGAEV: So, they’re piggybacking on Shakespeare? I mean, kind of contriving to do it.

MCMULLAN: Yes, it’s piggybacking. Absolutely. It is a very obvious instance of, you know, what you might call cultural parasitism, I suppose. It’s the recognition that you can gain value from objects made from something organic, a tree. That can be associated in some way with Shakespeare, yes. So, the number of objects that have been made out of both Shakespeare’s alleged mulberry tree and Herne’s alleged Oak, that are in the Royal Collection…

BOGAEV: They could go to the moon and back? That’s what I meant.

MCMULLAN: Well, they’re kind of seamlessly connected to mulberry objects and the oak objects. There are some baffling ones. I mean, there’s a whole chunk of oak that Victoria gave to the British Museum and they’ve no idea what to do with it, it’s just a chunk of wood. But to her, it had a certain resonance.

And again, the awkwardness of course is that they didn’t really feel—she certainly did not want to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, it was far too smutty. They much preferred the mentions of Windsor in the history plays to The Merry Wives of Windsor itself. But nonetheless, the opportunity to associate that Falstaff myth in The Merry Wives of Windsor with the location and the royal family and the castle was clearly too much to resist.

BOGAEV: Well, all of this merging and invoking by the royal family, of Shakespeare, and aligning themselves with Shakespeare, in the big picture, does it work? As in, does the public buy it?

MCMULLAN: It’s a fascinating question, isn’t it? I think on one level there is a danger of assuming that Shakespeare has always been associated with elite culture and with the royal family, because that’s something that the royal association with Shakespeare promotes.

But if you think about the place of Shakespeare in education and in self-education, particularly in the 19th century—Andrew Murphy’s book on working-class readers of Shakespeare is very instructive on this—you have a sense that what’s going on in a struggle between Shakespeare the Democratizing Influence, and Shakespeare the King’s Man. And that sense of the royal family being involved in a kind of tug of war with Shakespeare’s long-standing associations with a certain kind of egalitarianism is a very tangible one, I think.

I don’t think that the association of Shakespeare and the royals is an automatic one in British culture. It continues to be sustained through the Royal Shakespeare Company, through the royal patronage of the Globe, and through the soft power aspects: the Shakespeare Theater in Gdańsk in Poland. Prince Charles is very heavily involved in helping Jerzy Limon raise the money to create that amazing theater. So there is a constant struggle, I think, quietly between Shakespeare the democratic writer and Shakespeare the royal writer.

BOGAEV: Well, I just really enjoyed this, and thanks for the conversation, and all the best with the exhibit.

MCMULLAN: Thank you very much for asking me to speak.


WITMORE: Gordon McMullan is a professor of English and Director of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London. He led the team that put together the new on-line exhibition: Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family.

If you want to view the exhibition, here’s how to get there—And I need to warn you, grab a pencil because they’re kind of complicated. You need to go to the website for “Shakespeare in the Royal Collection” or S-H-A-R-C. The website is One more time, that’s If you didn’t catch all of that, try typing the name of the exhibition into Google. It’s Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family. Making History: Shakespeare and the Royal Family.

Our podcast, “Say, What Art Thou That Talk’st Of Kings And Queens” was produced by Richard Paul. 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 Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

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. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.