Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn on Their Hamlet Opera

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 191

A new opera version of Hamlet is onstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera through June 9. Composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn talk with host Barbara Bogaev about adapting the texts of the earliest editions of Hamlet to create a libretto that subverts expectations and creating orchestrations that take audiences inside the minds of Hamlet and Ophelia.

The Saturday, June 4 performance of Hamlet will be transmitted live to movie theaters around the world via The Met’s Live in HD series. Watch it at a cinema near you.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Brett Dean is the composer and Matthew Jocelyn is the librettist for Hamlet, which premiered at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. The opera is onstage at the Metropolitan Opera through June 9.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 24, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Sing Thee to Thy Rest,” 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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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: There are plenty of people who say that Shakespeare’s words really “sing.” Now, in New York, they actually do.

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

Starting this month, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is premiering an opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The writers have cut the story down considerably. They’ve also made a number of unique choices. For one, this Hamlet is a conflation of all the known versions of Shakespeare’s play, so you’re never quite sure which lines you’ll hear. You’re also never sure who’s going to say what. Also, the opera tends to focus to a larger-than-normal extent on Ophelia.

The libretto for this Hamlet was written by Matthew Jocelyn, and the score was written by Brett Dean. Brett and Matthew joined us recently from New York and London to talk about their process, their choices and why it was they chose to tackle Shakespeare in the first place. We call this podcast “Sing Thee to Thy Rest!”

Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: I am convinced that you guys could write an opera about anything. That’s because, Brett, you wrote one about an advertising executive in hell. Is that right?

BRETT DEAN: That is correct, yeah. Guilty as charged.

BOGAEV: What possessed you then to turn to Shakespeare?

DEAN: Hmm. Well, that’s a very complicated question because when the idea of a Hamlet opera was first put to me, it wasn’t my idea. It was suggested by a Danish tenor who, you know, saw himself as a Danish prince.

BOGAEV: Wait, he wanted to play Hamlet, so he said, “Why don’t you…?”

DEAN: Oh. Yeah, I mean, he’s blonde and an ex-dancer, and I’m sure he’d love to sing this role one of these days, and I hope he gets the chance.

But he suggested, because I was searching for the right story for an opera commission that had come in from Glyndebourne, and he said, “You know, there still isn’t a really good Hamlet opera. Why don’t you try Hamlet?” And my initial response was, “Oh, lord, that’s a big one.” And I was quite daunted.

BOGAEV: “Daunted” as in scared. You were…

DEAN: Yeah. But it was my wife, Heather, that was captivated. She was absolutely smitten with the idea. She’s a painter, and she launched into a cycle of vivid oil paintings from reading the text and taking certain single lines as the starting point for a whole kind of visual exploration.

It did take me quite a while to come around to it, and then got into the idea. We found every possible DVD version we could find. We were living in Berlin at the time, and there was a very compelling production at the Schaubühne, which returned regularly, so we were able to get to see that.

BOGAEV: Oh. I want to ask you about that. But first, I want to bring Matthew into the conversation. Matthew, Brett said he was daunted and didn’t even think he maybe wanted to do this. Was that your feeling too, when this first came up? What is so daunting about Shakespeare and Hamlet?

MATTHEW JOCELYN: I was obviously intimidated because it is the apex of English literature. But I found it more exciting than daunting very quickly.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera, written by Brett Dean and composed by Matthew Jocelyn.]

CHORUS: [Singing eerily] Dust. All are dust. Quintessence of dust. Beauty of our world. Dust. Returneth to dust. No more. Dust. Quintessence of dust.

JOCELYN: There was a sense of, “Okay, this is a challenge.” And as a colonized Canadian, “Can I take this on?” With this comrade colonized Australian?

BOGAEV: Well, wait, let me ask you both this, then, because you said, “Here was this Danish tenor, and he said, ‘Do Hamlet.’” I was thinking, well, what if he’d been, I don’t know, an English tenor, and he’d said, “I always wanted to play Richard III. You should write an opera based on Richard III.” Would you have been so daunted or would you have done that?

DEAN: I don’t know. I mean, ultimately, the great thing, which I then came to recognize with Hamlet—as opposed to Richard III let’s say—is that Hamlet is much more in the vernacular and in people’s imagination and appreciation.

But I think alongside, say, Romeo and Juliet, it sort of has the popular ethos or mythology attached to it like hardly anything else. It’s this work of imagination that just continues to fascinate every generation that comes along.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.]

SINGER ONE: [Singing] Ay, disappoint.

SINGER TWO: [Singing] Nay, there’s the rrrrrrrrrub!

SINGER THREE: Oh, the rrrrrrrub. That’s good, very good.

CHORUS: [Singing] Rub!

SINGER ONE: [Singing] Fishmonger.

SINGER FOUR: [Singing] O, that is too, too sullied flesh would melt.

CHORUS: [Singing frantically] This too, too sullied flesh. This sullied flesh. This sullied flesh.

BOGAEV: Matthew, where did you start with Brett? I mean, did you start with… He went to a lot of shows it sounds like. He watched a lot of DVDs, different versions of Hamlet. What did you guys talk about in your first meeting, and where did you start with the text?

JOCELYN: We talked about the fact that the Hamlet edition that one was able to read at the time, and any production anybody has ever seen, is essentially a conflation: either a reduction of the second quarto, or a reduction of the second quarto but a few lines from the First Folio. Or the First Folio with a few things taken out or a few things added in.

Directors and editors are always playing with the text—rarely integrating the first quarto into that. But it was clear that there were three texts that had been published either in or very closely after Shakespeare’s life. And then the first quarto which remains, for many, a mystery as to what its actual origin is.

So, we said, “We’ve got material, but there is no such thing as Hamlet.” If we’re going to do an opera based on Hamlet, that’s all it can be. It can be a juggling with material, and a reworking of material.

Then, very luckily, Brett had another commission to do a string quartet with a soprano singer and wanted to work on the Ophelia songs. That was my first sort of exploration as a librettist was to say, rather than doing the Ophelia songs or the ditties that she says in her mad scene, I want to compose something that is a medley of all of the words that Ophelia hears said about her by others. Or that are said to her, or sworn at her, or thrown at her by her father, Polonius; by her brother, Laertes; by Hamlet himself; by Gertrude; by Claudius. All of them have things to say to her or about her.

And it was almost as though these words are the stones that she carries around her neck and take her to the bottom of the river when she falls into it, because she’s unable to dislodge them from her brain.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera. Brenda Rae is Ophelia.]

OPHELIA: [Singing frantically] My joy, my joy, my joy. For bonny sweet robin is all my joy.

JOCELYN: That ended up being a door into how much we could explore character through the borrowing of text, as much as through their own text as through the borrowing of text and displacement of text.

[Clip continues]

OPHELIA: [Singing frantically] Never doubt I love thee. I love thee.

BOGAEV: Well, that’s really fascinating. It sounds as if just that discovery coming so early, that that kind of freed you to create and to edit the play in the way that you do. Because you take lines from one person and from one character and you put them in another character’s mouth, or you really do… you show a great sense of freedom with the text.

JOCELYN: Others would call that irreverence, but yes. But that’s what we felt, that there was nothing sacred. And it—I think for both of us—we did feel a great sense of freedom and absolute loyalty at the same time.

BOGAEV: Oh, fascinating. You know, I read a review that pointed out that setting all 4,000 lines from all the different versions of Hamlet to music would’ve made your opera as long as The Ring cycle.

DEAN: Yeah, well…

BOGAEV: Which I would’ve sat through.

DEAN: Well, I don’t know how many others would have sat through it, but…

BOGAEV: But why don’t you tell me about this process for deciding what to keep and what to cut. Because you both said in an interview that during this first meeting that you had, you separately wrote down the six most important parts of the play that had to be included in your opera. What was on your list of these non-negotiable elements or plot points?

DEAN: I might just go back one step before that, because on that same first day, we also read through the entire text, and that took five hours of spoken text. One could do the maths and see that that was going to mean, you know, probably about 10 hours of music. It gave us an idea of the…

BOGAEV: I’m picturing you both there for five hours reading to each other.

DEAN: Yeah. And my wife.

JOCELYN: Along with Brett’s wife. With Heather as well. Yeah.

DEAN: Yeah. My wife, Heather, was part of it. We just, you know, shared the lines around the table.

BOGAEV: Oh my God. She is devoted.

DEAN: Well, she was in a working phase as well.

BOGAEV: Right. She’s doing the paintings.

DEAN: It was incredibly helpful to her and inspiring. But, it gave us an idea of the magnitude of reduction that we had to enter into.

BOGAEV: I bet.

DEAN: And hence, then, we followed that with the suggestion of Matthew’s: of writing down the six most important things, and then a second set of six.

For me, quite apparent, it being an opera, I felt that soliloquys had to feature in some way, because they’re kind of the spoken theater equivalent of arias in a way.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera. Allan Clayton is Hamlet.]

HAMLET: [Singing] For in that dream of death, when we’re awaked and borne before the everlasting.

DEAN: But then, certainly from a dramatic point of view, there were these archetypal moments that I felt, for a dramatic opera, had to be part of it. The first appearance of the ghost being prominent amongst them.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.]

[Dramatically eerie orchestral music plays]

DEAN: And I was actually wondering, Matthew, whether you still had the sheets of paper that we wrote down our sets of six on?

JOCELYN: I actually do.

DEAN: All right.

JOCELYN: I don’t have them with me here in the studio, but just before getting on the plane, I said, “I want to take that booklet with me.” And so I brought it along.

BOGAEV: I love that. You should frame them.

DEAN: Yeah, yeah. Amazing.

BOGAEV: What were the biggest disagreements—let me ask you that—in these sets of six?

JOCELYN: There was—at least at this phase—there were no disagreements, but there were things that, for example, Brett’s example of the soliloquys, I had not included. We both agreed on Ophelia’s madness. We both agreed on the trajectory of the ghost and muted revenge. The play in the play, the theater in the theater, I think, came up, probably, for me in the top six and for Brett in the second six, or vice versa. But it was very easy to work our way through these.

The interesting one was that I did not have soliloquys anywhere, and that’s, again, the moment where the penny dropped, that this is the most important thing. It was number one on Brett’s list. This is the most important thing when he thinks of Hamlet, so we have to begin this opera with an aria.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.]

HAMLET: [Singing] Or not to be. Not to be.

JOCELYN: Then came the, “Well, how do we actually start it?”

Well, we’re starting it at Hamlet’s father’s gravesite, and obviously, we have to begin with, “Or not to be.”

[Clip continues]

HAMLET: [Singing] To die, to sleep. Is that all? Ay, all. No! To sleep, to dream. Ay, there it goes. To sleep.

DEAN: There are also nine… Is it nine Hamlet soliloquy?

BOGAEV: Right. You couldn’t have them all.

DEAN: We had to choose judiciously. And, of course, then we took a quite unconventional approach to the most famous soliloquy—

BOGAEV: Yes—

DEAN: —By choosing text from the first quarto.

BOGAEV: Yes. Let me ask you about that. Because we talk to so many actors on this program, and almost all of them say you can audibly hear the whole audience take this huge inhalation right before you do, “To be or not to be.” You know, for all of the big soliloquys, you hear everyone just holding their breath. And you know that everyone’s waiting for it all throughout the play.

I wondered, you start with, “To be.” Or you start with a nod, I guess, to “To be” right at the beginning of the opera. Were you trying to kind of subvert or do an end run around that, having your audience wait for the big lines right away?

JOCELYN: I think to a certain extent, what we were trying to do was, first of all, make a great narrative. The preoccupation is always, what are we doing that’s going to be the most singable or that’s going to be the most interesting for Brett to set to music? Those are considerations that go alongside the other considerations.

The beginning with “Or not to be” was offering the audience the code. You’re coming to see Hamlet. If you know Hamlet already, you’re given the instructions or the guide sheet, which says things are going to be out of order. Things may or may not be in the mouth of the person who said them in the text that you’ve read or that you’ve seen performed before. This is the alphabet through which to read this production right off the top.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s so smart. You completely upturn expectations, or that the audience should expect that.

JOCELYN: We upturn expectations, or we offer the audience to have different expectations. Then, the “Or not to be,” because it is a theme that reappears three or four times in the opera before we finally hear somebody say, “To be or not to be. Ay, there’s the point.”

BOGAEV: That beautiful poetic, poetic line.

JOCELYN: That beautiful poetic line. But even that, even within the narrative, it comes—we’ve placed it where it is placed in the first quarto, so that it comes earlier than people would expect it for those who know the play. We don’t want audiences to be trying to outguess us. We want audiences to be following the story.

DEAN: The other not unimportant component being, of course, the music itself. In all of the discussions we were having right from the outset about how much text can we actually keep, always in the back of my mind was the fact that, for me—also, I’ve always been fascinated, as an orchestral musician, by the orchestra as chief protagonist in any opera.

Having played in productions of things like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic, I was keenly aware of the muscle and heft and dramatic surge that comes from the piece.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera. Brenda Rae is Ophelia.]

[Loud and percussive orchestral music plays]

SINGER: [Singing] Where’s your father?

OPHELIA: [Singing frantically] What, who, why?

DEAN: That was the balancing act we were making the whole time.

BOGAEV: Yeah. You use sound in some really novel ways in this opera. You have kind of a semi-chorus in the pit where you don’t see them as an audience member. You also have these satellite groups of percussionists that are performing in high boxes on either side of the theater. What’s the motivation for those choices?

DEAN: The music needed space in order to resound. I guess the intention was to make the entire theater a kind of resonating chamber, a bit like being inside Hamlet’s head. And, that there was a kind of reflection through some of these also very unusual sounds, like squeezing of plastic bottles or hitting on trash metal.

BOGAEV: Do you mean those really cheap plastic bottles? The one that will drive you insane when you crunch them?

DEAN: The cheaper the better, actually. Yes.

JOCELYN: I’ve got one here. Would you like an example?

DEAN: Yeah. Let’s have a quick listen, yeah.

BOGAEV: The engineer will throw you out.

[LAUGHTER]

DEAN: Yeah, I’ve always sort of played around with different possible percussion sounds, largely also because a percussion section can take the orchestra out of the orchestra.

That is, it’s the quickest way to breakdown that otherwise very 19th-century standard orchestral sound that we know and love from, you know, operas of the past and many film soundtracks. It adds a different dimension to what an orchestra’s capable of.

BOGAEV: That’s fascinating that you are sonically illustrating how interior Hamlet is, and you are getting us inside Hamlet. I guess inside Ophelia’s mind, too, because it seems that…

DEAN: Definitely.

BOGAEV: Yeah. It seems that your opera tracks more of the story of the family dynamics of this play, rather than picking up on other themes.

DEAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, that was also one of our first discussions, was that we wanted to concentrate on the rooms of Elsinore, as it were.

BOGAEV: I want to pick on something you were talking about earlier, Brett, which is that you saw this particular staging of Hamlet in Berlin that was really inspiring. I think it was Lars Eidinger’s at the Schaubühne. What was so intriguing about that for you?

DEAN: Well, one thing that—and this was quite early on in my getting to know Hamlet. One thing that I found fascinating was that the German translation, it was greatly reduced. It was about a two-hour show. It was only six actors covering all the roles. It had this fascinating soundtrack. And then, it was also very, very funny.

Lars Eidinger, who was the Hamlet, and spent most of the evening with this unbelievably bizarre fat suit, was vamping. He was playing with the audience. He was constantly sort of breaking the fourth wall, and yet, he brought people in. And the fact that it was so funny and so witty and, you know, fast-witted as well, made it all the sadder as it got to its, you know, denouement.

BOGAEV: That’s absolutely true. Matthew, just did the humor and this concept or this idea that Brett just said, that Hamlet is a funny play, and the funnier it is the sadder it is. Did that resonate with you? And what lines do you find the funniest besides the obvious, you know, comic interludes, like the gravedigging scene?

JOCELYN: Coincidentally, when in Brett and my very first conversation, we brought up that very same question. Both of us said it’s really important, and especially important in an opera, that there be ready access to humor.

BOGAEV: Why is it especially important that it be funny for an opera?

JOCELYN: Can you imagine sitting through three hours of—without having a single laugh? Seriously?

DEAN: Of Brett Dean’s music.

JOCELYN: Of Brett Dean’s music.

DEAN: Without a couple of giggles? I mean, really. Yeah.

BOGAEV: Well, I mean, I think that’s why maybe there’s some people who are put off opera. They don’t understand that it can be funny.

JOCELYN: I think very much so. Because, I mean, interesting enough, humor is the hardest thing to pull off. There are very, very, very few operas of the, you know, the past three or four decades that really stress humor. There are a certain number, but it’s very tempting to go into places of lament and places of anguish and places of depression.

Hamlet himself is a comedian, and Hamlet’s closest friends are the actors. The people who he entrusts to bring out the truth of a situation are actors, and actors are not just tragedians. Actors are also people who have ready access to comedy and farce.

Structurally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are obviously comic characters. They’re perverse and pernicious characters, but they’re also comic characters. And so, there were all kinds of places that became invitations for some form of mirth.

BOGAEV: You might’ve already covered this, but I think I want to delineate it a little bit more because we’re more familiar talking about theater on this podcast than about opera. In live theater, I know it’s a collaborative endeavor, and characterizations are formed in rehearsals among the actors and also with the director’s input. But how does that work in an opera? How do you understand your roles in creating and delineating character? I’ll start with you, Matthew.

JOCELYN: It’s a really important question, because there are so many layers and phases to the work. We were lucky in that Brett and I did a lot of intense talking about this project together, but Neil Armfield also joined us on a number of occasions. Neil had a familiarity with the text because he’d directed a very famous production in Australia. So, he had that familiarity. I had the familiarity of having been Patrice Chéreau’s assistant in France when he first directed Hamlet with Gérard Desarthe. And so, we brought some of that baggage with us, but we were also very curious about how to rework it together.

It started—you know, these three-way conversations happened in a big way. Then there’s the choice of text. The choice of text, for the most part, was my job, and the sculpting of it and the rearranging of it. But always, that text is an invitation for music, and music is the principal characterization.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.]

CHORUS: [Singing in a chant] Dust, dust, dust. Quintessence of dust.

HAMLET: [Singing] What woo’t thou’t do?

CHORUS: [Singing in a chant] Dust.

HAMLET: Woo’t weep—

CHORUS: Dust.

HAMLET: Woo’t fight—

CHORUS: Dust.

HAMLET: Woo’t fast—

CHORUS: Dust.

HAMLET: Woo’t tear thyself—

JOCELYN: Where I play with that is I would often offer repetitions of things or texts that I thought could be used as musical leitmotifs, and so, would become thematic drivers, musical thematic drivers for characterizations in places where you can do something in opera which you can’t do in theater, which is to have superimposed voices.

[CLIP from the opera of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera. Women’s voices overlap, singing as if from different distances.]

JOCELYN: And, you know, sometimes that can be a duet with people saying very different things, or people saying the same thing, or people singing slight variations on things.

DEAN: That’s been very much also part of the joy of working with Matthew, is his understanding and appreciation of, not only possible opportunities for ensembles. For example, through repetitions in—for example, that marvelous moment of, “It is the very ecstasy of love.”

But it also helped me to… well, just to hear music, and get into the rhythm of this extraordinary text. And I think Matthew’s very attuned to rhythm. And whilst his own musical experience got him as far as trombone in a brass band, he…

JOCELYN: Watch, I can—do you want a little example there?

DEAN: I mean, it’s obvious that he’s also gravitated towards directing opera himself and, you know, just has this flare for it. And the singers in this production are just getting the text out there so clearly, it’s a real joy. So, that played a big part of how, not only then the rhythms, but also the pictures started.

There were days that were—on the good days, at least—when I felt that the piece was writing itself. There was so much suggestion in the text, in its rhythm, in its sense of pitch, in its emotion, too. You know, this piece for me has been a bit of a watershed moment in terms of gauging the emotional temperature of each and every character, of each and every line that we’ve chosen to use. That helped sort of dictate, in many ways, how the music would unfold.

BOGAEV: Well, Matt, I mean, it’s hard to top that, but do you have plans for any other Shakespeare operas, adaptations? I mean, Lear, anyone?

DEAN: Well, I mean, Lear is a particular case in point in that there is a very, very marvelous and often-performed Lear by Aribert Reimann, and actually a piece that I found especially inspiring when I was in the early stages of turning to Shakespeare myself. I saw a memorable performance of it in Hamburg.

That sort of takes Lear, for me, off the table to some extent. I mean, we have—Matthew and I—have talked about that as a possibility. I know that Matthew’s especially fond of Romeo. Well, and Juliet, too, of course.

BOGAEV: Matthew, is that where you’re headed? Romeo and Juliet?

JOCELYN: For the moment, I think one of the big other takeaways from this experience was—I don’t mean to put words into your mouth, Brett, but was the discovery of how delightful and chewy it is to work with text of the elegance of Shakespeare’s language.

The fact of working with other texts that are of a sophisticated, and maybe slightly archaic, or even totally archaic language, but where the shape of the words and the chewiness of the words and the meatiness of the words is beyond current just spoken language or contemporary language—There’s an inherent invitation to music that I was less sure of when we began work on this opera, and I think, Brett, you probably were as well, and for both of us was a huge discovery, which you got to explore far more, of course, because you were the one composing.

BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait to hear your future opera, The Canterbury Tales? Or…

JOCELYN: Keep going, keep going. Keep guessing, keep guessing.

DEAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: Well, it is so great to talk with both of you, and I really do wish you all the best for your run at The Met in New York.

JOCELYN: Thank you so much.

DEAN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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WITMORE: Brett Dean is the composer and Matthew Jocelyn is the librettist for Hamlet, an opera premiering at The Metropolitan Opera and running from May 13 until June 9, 2022.  

If you can’t get to New York to see the production, the Saturday, June 4th performance of Hamlet will be transmitted live to movie theaters around the world via The Met’s Live in HD series. You can also hear it over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “Sing Thee to Thy Rest!” was produced under the supervision of Garland Scott. 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 give 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, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.