Shakespeare and Ukraine, with Irena Makaryk

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 190

Director Oleksandr “Les” Kurbas’s 1920 Macbeth was the first production of a Shakespeare play in Ukraine. Kurbas staged the play in the midst of the famine and violence of the Russian Civil War: Lady Macbeth fainted from hunger in the wings, and Kurbas used series of hand signals to warn the actors onstage that they were about to be shot at.

Kurbas was one of the main subjects of “‘What's Past is Prologue’: Shakespeare and Canon Formation in Early Soviet Ukraine,” a presentation given by Dr. Irena Makaryk at Shakespeare and the Worlds of Communism, a 1996 conference sponsored by the Folger, Penn State University, and the Russian Embassy in Washington. The event looked at Shakespeare’s role in the formation of culture within the bloc of countries that had been allied with the newly-collapsed Soviet Union.

Makaryk’s paper explored the ways Ukrainians used Shakespeare’s plays to confirm the value and existence of Ukrainian culture. She also examined how the Russians—first the Czars, and then the Soviets—repressed Ukrainian theater order to keep Ukrainian culture under their thumb. As Vladimir Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine continues, we spoke with Makaryk about her research on Shakespeare, theater, and Ukrainian national identity. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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

Dr. Irena Makaryk is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. Her book Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn: Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism, and Early Soviet Cultural Politics was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2004.

You can read her paper “‘What's Past is Prologue’: Shakespeare and Canon Formation in Early Soviet Ukraine” in Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism. The paperback edition was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2013.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 10, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Do but Dream on Sovereignty,” 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 edited our transcript.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano, Lucas Kuzma and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: A link between Shakespeare and Ukraine? Yes, there is one. And it’s one that resonates on so many levels.

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

In 1996, the Folger sponsored an event along with Penn State University and the Russian Embassy in Washington. Its title was Shakespeare and the Worlds of Communism, and it looked at Shakespeare’s role in the formation of culture within the bloc of countries that had been allied with the newly-collapsed Soviet Union.

One particularly important presentation given over those three days was by Irena Makaryk, a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. It was titled ‘What's Past is Prologue’: Shakespeare and Canon Formation in Early Soviet Ukraine. While the paper didn’t seem as important in the moment—it was one of more-than-a-dozen delivered—it has become important with time. In fact, today, there are parts of it that even seem prescient.

Irena’s paper looked at how Ukrainians, in particular the acclaimed Ukrainian theater director Oleksandr “Les” Kurbas, used Shakespeare’s plays [to assert the value and existence] of Ukrainian culture. And she examined how the Russians—first the Czars and then the Soviets—repressed that Shakespeare in order to keep Ukrainian culture under their thumb.

As Vladimir Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine continues, we invited Irena in to recap the highpoints of her research. We call this podcast “I Do but Dream on Sovereignty.”

Dr. Irena Makaryk is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I know your family is from Ukraine, and I just can't imagine what it must be like to watch this brutal war from so far away. Are you in touch with people or family or friends or colleagues near the fighting?

IRENE MAKARYK: All of the above. I have lots of cousins, and they're spending their nights in bomb shelters, but they don't want to leave. I have colleagues, Shakespeare colleagues, who have given up teaching Shakespeare and are helping with the war effort. It's been very hard to look at the destruction that has occurred and the way that civilians are being targeted. That's the most difficult.

BOGAEV: Oh wow, I really feel for you. I didn't want to start the conversation without talking about what this means to you, because we're going to go way back and give context to a conversation about Shakespeare in Ukraine and Shakespeare in the Russian Empire. So, let's get into Shakespeare now.

As I said, I do want to go way back to the beginning of this story to how Shakespeare first came to the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik Revolution. We should remind everyone, of course, that Ukraine was part of Russia at the time.

MAKARYK: So, Shakespeare came to the Russian Empire in the 18th century. Essentially, he came mediated, either through French or German and with a tradition of melodrama and idealized Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And what do you mean by idealized?

MAKARYK: Idealized? Oh, anything that was double entendre, any low characters, were removed. It was made into a very elegant tragedy or tragicomedy. In the middle of the century, Alexander Sumarokov, who was considered the father of Russian drama, translated Hamlet from the French, and he made Hamlet into a what we call comedy with a happy ending and a moralistic message. So, that was the very first translation.

The subsequent tradition of mediation just continued. One of the most remarkable and amusing, I think, from my perspective, is the title of Alexander Rodchenko's translation of Macbeth, 1830, which he called Macbeth, a Tragedy of Shakespeare from the Works of Schiller.  

BOGAEV: Oh, okay.  

MAKARYK: You have to think about that for a little bit.Uh-huh? That's not how I remembered the authorship issue.” That sense of mediation is there.

BOGAEV: So, this is in all texts. Shakespeare wasn't being performed.

MAKARYK: No, he was not being performed. And we do have other adaptations: Catherine the Great also adapted Merry Wives of Windsor, and she called it something like This is What it Means to Have a Basket and Linen. She turns Falstaff into a fop, Polkadov. Francis Ford becomes for Fordov, and Mistress Quickly becomes a French shopkeeper. So, huge translations.

We have to remember that there's very little literacy in the Russian Empire at this time. It's a tiny, tiny group of people who know about Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Shakespeare didn't have then a very high profile culturally. But what was he thought to represent, at least in the eyes of the monarchy? Was he seen as pro-monarchy or the opposite?

MAKARYK: In the 18th century, he was seen as an emblem of the English national character: the English being bloody-minded, loving murder and horror.

BOGAEV: Whores? Whorish, you mean?  

MAKARYK: So, not a very high reputation at all. The turning point came with Alexander Pushkin, who admired Shakespeare's history plays in particular, and he referred to Shakespeare as “Father Shakespeare.” We see a lot of allusions to Shakespeare plays in his poetry, but also in his dramas as well.

BOGAEV: But then, on the other hand, there was Tolstoy, who famously hated Shakespeare.

MAKARYK: Yeah, that's a little further along, so, late in the 19th century. But, Tolstoy figures part of that long tradition of a sense of literature always having to have a purpose. Tolstoy, thinking about Shakespeare as being a poor writer who has pompous language, whose vision of the world is immoral. He comes from a tradition, I think, of dislike of Shakespeare's complexity, I would say.

BOGAEV: Okay, well, this gives us a good fix on how some Russians at least thought about Shakespeare before the revolution.

But what about Ukraine? Because a major point that you make is that Russian culture is not a monolith. And you write that one of the things the czars did was rupture the natural development of Ukrainian culture in the 19th century. So, huge question: how did they do that and what part did Shakespeare play in it?

MAKARYK: Shakespeare, as you suggest, was a very important figure for Ukrainians. I can take us back again to the 19th century and the Ukrainian bard, Taras Shevchenko, who had been exiled by the czar into Kazakhstan and could only be allowed two books to read: the Bible and one other. He chose Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a source of solace for many readers and something they desired. The 19th century czars, but particularly Alexander II, destroyed essentially or tried to destroy Ukrainian culture through decrees and prohibitions. The two most famous being one of 1863. The one of 1876.

The 1863 circular stated that there is no separate Ukrainian language. It never existed. It does not exist, and it never could exist.

In 1876 all theater performances in Ukrainian were banned. All books—Ukrainian books—print books were prohibited. All the books—Ukrainian books—in libraries were taken off the shelves. All translations, including Shakespeare and the Bible, were prohibited. Folk songs when publicly performed had to be sung in Russian or in French, but not in Ukrainian.


MAKARYK: By the late 19th century, there is some relaxation, and we have some theater, but no stationary theater. Performing touring theater is actually what happened.

BOGAEV: It sounds really wild, how this crackdown on Ukrainian culture affected the theater. Did I get this right, that if you're staging a play, any characters that were peasants or children were allowed to speak Ukrainian, but middle- and upper-class characters were required by law to speak Russian?

MAKARYK: That's right, I was just about to make that point. You've got there before me. Absolutely.

It's not that the actors were allowed to speak Ukrainian; they had to speak Ukrainian if they were peasants and children. So, that meant that you were establishing national stereotypes of an inferior group of people. And, that the Ukrainian language was not capable of satire or history or plays of urban life. It was really just domestic and folkloric.

BOGAEV: And then this other stipulation, which I'm still trying to wrap my head around as a theater-goer. Ukrainian plays were permitted only if a Russian play was staged first on the same night and was of the same number of acts.

MAKARYK: Correct. Yes.

BOGAEV: That's a long night at the theater.

MAKARYK: Exactly.

BOGAEV: Was this really enforced?

MAKARYK: It was. It was.

BOGAEV: In 1905, some of these restrictions started to come off, you write.


BOGAEV: How did the Ukrainians react?

MAKARYK: This was a watershed moment. The decrees and prohibitions weren't entirely rescinded, but there was a relaxation what we would call a “thaw.” There was an opening up of possibilities.

There was a huge excitement about what could happen. It looked as if liberalism and creativity and modernity and modernism were all coming together, and things could be possible. We have a lot of avant-garde works.

We have, for example, the Link, 1908 in Kyiv, the very first visual arts avant-garde exhibition in the whole Russian Empire—that takes place in Kyiv. We have Isadora Duncan coming to Kyiv, choosing Kyiv for one of her very first venues of dance for tour of 1907 – 1908.

We have all kinds of artists in Ukraine that also traveled to Paris, to Munich, to Vienna, to Petersburg, Moscow. People like Malevich, Tatlin, Burliuk, these people—Eisenstein, Kozintsev. We think of Kozintsev, as a Russian filmmaker, but he was born in Kyiv. All of these people coming together, creating a ferment in art, what I've called “jubilant experimentation” elsewhere. We have a very important political moment: Ukrainian as a language was finally declared an independent Slavic language by the recently created Russian Duma. Now, that happens as a brief moment of glory, so to speak.

BOGAEV: Great. So, it sounds like the kind of cultural Ukrainian Spring happening. Which is interesting because this avant-garde was pretty well underway in 1917, although there's an idea that it was the revolution that led to an initial cultural flourishing in the USSR. And, again, one of your theses is just how off-the-mark that is: that the revolution actually interrupted what you're describing, this flowering process that was going on already?

MAKARYK: Absolutely. But I think we also have to realize that there are two different kinds of revolution. What was happening in Russia, where, you know, Shakespeare was not of great interest in 1917, or 1922 even, the founding of the Soviet Union, because they had a tradition of Russian Shakespeare and Russian art.

But for the Ukrainians, having that moment in 1905 of an opening up of possibilities, including, very importantly, the creation of a stationary theater and then in 1917, a state theater. In fact, there was a state theater that was Ukrainian, there was one that was Russian and one that was Jewish. All of these groups were also seeing each other's works. There was a great symbiosis here.

BOGAEV: At this point in the story, we should talk about Oleksandr “Les” Kurbas. He just sounds like quite the visionary artist. You should first just describe him for us.

MAKARYK: Sure, he was a charismatic figure. He was born in western Ukraine. He was educated in Vienna. He studied philology, Sanskrit, philosophy. He was multilingual. He spearheaded this movement, a theatrical movement away from Russia and created a young company, a young theater company.

He wanted to turn directly to Europe, without any authoritative models or intermediaries. He didn't want to copy what Europe was doing, but rather to have a kind of dialog with the classics, but with also all other works that were being creative, both in Western Europe but also elsewhere. He was interested in Japanese theater.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and he also had some really interesting training techniques.

MAKARYK: He did.

BOGAEV: Maybe you could tell us about his training programs for his actors at his drama school. It sounds like it took months of training before actors were even allowed to speak.


BOGAEV: Right?

MAKARYK: So, in 1922, he created a theater company called the Berezil, which is the archaic word for March, which signified spring, a new awakening, and so on. He created this company which was, as he put it, not like a university: because you finish university and you go on to something else. This would be a lifelong dedication to theater.

BOGAEV: And what was the idea that you actors shouldn't speak until they've done, what?

MAKARYK: The idea was he didn't want actors just to emote or recite. The idea was to create an intelligent actor, a really cultured actor, who knew all these things and could, with a simple gesture, embody a whole concept. So he had his actors go to museums, to art books and study individual artworks. You know, Cezanne's paintings, for example, try to recreate the dynamic, the rhythm of that artwork. Or music: Beethoven, Scriabin, a whole range of sources. And they had to prove that they could repeat that same gesture again perfectly.

BOGAEV: So modern. What interested him about staging Shakespeare? Because it sounds like he had an unusual approach to that as well.

MAKARYK: Yeah. So, he staged the first Shakespeare in Ukraine. And for him, the first Shakespeare, which was Macbeth, was a revolutionary act. It was an assertion of the existence of Ukraine, of the Ukrainian language, of Ukrainian culture that was certainly up to embodying, representing, staging Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: This was 1919, and you write that just to imagine a serious discussion and staging of Shakespeare during 1919, 1920 is mind-boggling. Describe what was going on then, what it was like to do theater then.

MAKARYK: So, this is in the middle of total destruction. Regions cut off from each other. No food distribution, no materials to work with. We have anarchist peasants roaming. We have nine to eleven changes of government. The historian Edward Acton suggested that this was close to—in terms of the economic collapse—close to what it would have been after the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Yet in the middle of all of this, there was still this excitement about possibilities that art could be a way of moving things forward. So, Kurbas was creating a production of Macbeth and said to his actors, “You know, if you don't eat, that's okay. You should think about this and what we're doing for Ukrainian culture. This is our great moment.”

BOGAEV: He apparently had a series of hand gestures that he would gesture to people from backstage when they should stop because they're about to be shot at?

MAKARYK: That's right. That's right. Yeah. He had worked this out with one of the commanders of the Bolshevik forces, and he knew when he had to either quickly end the play or immediately end the play because they were going to be shot at.

BOGAEV: And there was great famine.


BOGAEV: I mean, his Lady Macbeth was fainting in the wings.

MAKARYK: That's right. Yeah, she was fainting, and they called a doctor who said, “There's nothing wrong with her that a good beef steak wouldn't fix. She's starving.”

BOGAEV: Wow. So, it's during this time that there are all these incursions on art and theater from the party. What did artists have to do to keep up with all of these changes in the law?

MAKARYK: So the Soviet Union is founded in 1922, and it takes a while before all of their censorship comes into Ukraine. In fact, between 1922 and 1926, because of Lenin, and because he understood that nationalism is an important way of encouraging people to agree to the Bolshevik agenda, there's a period of Ukrainianization. So, lots of translations, lots of theatrical experimental productions.

But by 1926, the doors are closing. What happens then is the first sort of volley is something called the “theatrical theses.” They essentially said that directors had to be responsible to the state, not to the audience.

They started to create review committees, and these consisted of people who knew little, or had no knowledge, of the theater. They were often representatives of trade unions, semi-literate or totally illiterate people like representatives of the plumbers’ union. They were now responsible for agreeing on what the repertoire would be, what the number of plays that would take place.

They pushed class issues, so low characters began to appear as spokesmen for the proletariat. Masses had to be introduced everywhere in productions, even including in the crypt scene of Romeo and Juliet at the very end, there's a whole bunch of people there, which is, of course, not in Shakespeare's play. Kate and Petruchio's relationship becomes a struggle with the vestiges of the feudal past and their attempt to create a new and a better socialist life.

The official censor is created at times under the Soviet Union, employing as many as 80,000 people, ensuring that the message onstage and page was doctrinally sound, unambiguous, stylistically conformable to the style which came to be socialist realism. This is a gradual process starts in ‘26. It escalates in ‘28, ‘29. By 1934 there's no more experimentation.

BOGAEV: Okay, so Lenin dies in 1924 and then the rise of Stalin. Of course, Stalin takes aim at people like Kurbas. They don't just—Stalin and the Soviet government don't just discourage Kurbas. And these are the radical theater types, right? They try to wipe them out. It sounds like.

MAKARYK: Absolutely so. The worst year is the year of 1937, the Great Purges when, according to historian Alan Bullock, there were 30,000 executions, when the whole Ukrainian government was wiped out. When all of the cultural workers, the whole intelligentsia, was essentially executed or shipped to the far north to—and also to Siberia. Among those victims was Les Kurbas, who was executed on the specific orders of Stalin himself and in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union.

This was a way of getting the teachers, the professors, the scientists, the theater directors, the actors, and to destroy them.

BOGAEV: It's such a tragic and familiar story—


BOGAEV: —How many tens, hundreds, hundreds of thousands of artists died in the Gulag. And, this was the period in which Stalin decrees that social realist art is the only true art.

MAKARYK: Correct. Yeah. So that comes a little bit earlier. It's 1934 when we have the meeting of Soviet writers and they discuss what the right path forward would be artistically, and we have Zhdanov giving a keynote address saying that art has to be socialist realist. What he means by that is that it has to reflect the minutia of everyday life, yet the heroes have to be idealistic because they're looking forward to this great future with the Communist Party. So anything that is too complex has to be considered decadent or even dangerous to those who want to perform it.

BOGAEV: And that means Shakespeare? I mean, does that mean that the idea of a true tragedy or a death at the end of the play, they can't go with that?

MAKARYK: Yeah. A tragedy becomes very difficult because what is created then is a new genre, something called optimistic tragedy. If a hero dies at the end of the play, it has to be shown that he has died for the cause of the greater good for the creation of this wonderful idea of the utopia that's about to be created. So, certain plays become particularly problematic, Hamlet being one of them.

BOGAEV: How about the comedies?

MAKARYK: The comedies, there are some comedies that are performed, and in fact, in that terrible year of 1937, there are a bunch of comedies that are being performed, and Stalin declares that the world is getting better, happier, more joyous.

BOGAEV: Is this all in keeping with an interpretation of Marx's directive to Shakespeare-ize drama? He said that right?

MAKARYK: He did. So Marx and Engels, I think, should be credited as having saved Shakespeare in the Soviet Union. There was not a great interest, in Russia, in Shakespeare in the early part of the 20th century. He was a bourgeois writer. He was pre-revolutionary.

But once we have Marx and Engels being reprinted, and especially Marx, who has tons of references to Shakespeare—


MAKARYK: He used to quote Shakespeare at his breakfast table to his daughter. And he used Timon of Athens as a critique of capitalism. Marx becomes a way of saving Shakespeare, if you like.

If you read the theater criticism or the literary criticism of the time, you've got to start your opening paragraph by citing Marx on Shakespeare and saying how Shakespeare is great because he presents this wide social spectrum and he is a humanist. These are terms that are repeated like a kind of mantra.

BOGAEV: And then Stalin comes along and Stalin-izes Shakespeare, I guess you could say. Then later on, you have the Soviet Union deciding to translate all of Shakespeare's plays into the 28 odd languages of the Soviet republics in an effort to battle Ukrainian nationalism. So—I'm moving the time-line forward pretty fast here, but maybe you could connect the dots for us there.

MAKARYK: Yeah, actually, we'd have to move the dots back a little bit. In 1934, at that writers’ congress, we have Maxim Gorky brought back from exile by Stalin. Gorky was a big fan of Shakespeare's. And we have that idea of translating Shakespeare into all of the different languages and Shakespeare brought to the various republics in order to homogenize Soviet culture, so, everybody knowing the same thing. And there was some push-back. For example, the Uzbek theater said, “We know nothing about Shakespeare. What is Shakespeare? What is drama?” But the Bolsheviks said, “Well, this is the highest level of art. It's important that you become progressive. It's important that this should be staged in Uzbekistan.”

BOGAEV: Well, we got away from the subject of Les Kurbas for a few moments, but I do want to get back to him. Was the purge of Kurbas all about attacking Ukrainian culture or was it truly an argument about art?

MAKARYK: No, it was definitely about attacking Ukrainian culture and destroying the morale of people. If you have your whole level of educators, and cultural workers and workers in the state, and government destroyed, it's going to cow the population.

Certainly it was partly to destroy any idea of nationalism. Stalin's henchmen, Kaganovich, in fact says that every time you look at a Ukrainian, you're probably looking at a nationalist. The idea was that this is a fearful nation, the Soviet nation, that is afraid that the Ukrainians are going to again declare independence as they tried in 1917, ‘18. “They want to be autonomous, we have to keep them down.”

But the idea about Kurbas and formalism and art is, I think, completely false. Kurbas did many things, including set out surveys, detailed surveys that he gave to his audience. In the audience, there were all kinds of people from, you know, peasants, villagers, people with little education. They loved his works and they found them completely comprehensible.

Whereas in the debates of the 1920s, 1929, the argument was that Kurbas is drawing theater away from its fraternal brother, Russia: he is creating a formalist theater that nobody understands. So, the argument was supposedly about art, but it was really about destroying a culture.

BOGAEV: Bringing this up to the present day. In recent years before this conflict in Ukraine, has there been an inheritor to Kurbas?

MAKARYK: In the present time, we have Nataliya Torkut, a professor at Zaporizhzhia where the nuclear reactor is, and she created a Shakespeare center. There are scholars there. There are students, they do theatricals, they have an annual competition. There have been tons of productions of Hamlet. There has been a lot of translation.

One of the best known authors of the time, Yurii Andrukhovych, has translated Hamlet and his Hamlet translations have been performed throughout Ukraine. Most recently in a bomb shelter in even Ivano-Frankivsk.

BOGAEV: Do you see parallels to today's situation in this story? Of course, beyond Shakespeare, I'm talking politically. or in the broadest sense.

MAKARYK: Yeah. I see terrible, terrible parallels. In an editorial in one of the Kremlin media outlets, Novosti, RIA Novosti, an author called Timofei Sergeitsev wrote a piece, What Russia Should Do With Ukraine. He suggests a total erasure of Ukrainian identity, and even the word “Ukraine” cannot be allowed to exist.

Now this, to me, sounds like that decree I mentioned of 1863, where it is impossible to come to sort of any terms with the Putin government.

To have this production of Hamlet in a bomb shelter is an answer, which is: To be, as President Zelensky's response to the European Union was that this is a Shakespearean moment, it's an existential moment. And our answer, he says from his point of view, our answer, as Ukrainians, is to be.

BOGAEV: Irene, I really want to thank you for talking with me today, and I wish safety to your family and your friends and your colleagues.

MAKARYK: Thank you so much.

BOGAEV: And I'm hoping for the best.

MAKARYK: I am too. I think it will be horrible for a while, though I just hope that in the end, we will have Ukraine. Thank you so much for this opportunity.


WITMORE: Dr. Irena Makaryk is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. You can still read the paper she delivered on Shakespeare in Ukraine at the 1996 Folger conference. The conference proceedings were published as a book titled Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism. The paperback edition was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2013.

Her book about Les Kurbas was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2004. Its title is Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn: Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism, and Early Soviet Cultural Politics.

Dr. Makaryk was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “I Do but Dream on Sovereignty,” 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, Lucas Kuzma 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.