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Justin Shaw: Shakespeare scholarship, with a modern twist

As a PhD student in English, Justin Shaw is delving into Shakespeare in new and innovative ways, helping bring revered texts squarely into the digital age.

The first course dedicated to Shakespeare that Justin Shaw ever took was at the University of London’s Goldsmith campus during an undergraduate semester-abroad program based in England, the Bard’s ancestral home.

But despite the historical ambience, it wasn’t until the Emory PhD student found himself teaching “Othello” to eighth-graders in Boston during an Americorps summer program that he began to fully absorb the power of the playwright’s words.

“I had to go back, really read the text and convey it in a way that was meaningful to my students,” says Shaw, now in his third year of doctoral studies in English literature at Emory’s Laney Graduate School.

For both Shaw and his students, it was a breakthrough experience. “These were young people who wouldn’t have touched a book outside of class, but to see them engage with that difficult and controversial text put a smile on my face and challenged me to flex my intellectual muscles,” he recalls.

“I began to appreciate the value of his work for helping us understand things, to make sense of the world,” Shaw adds. “Family and relationships, politics and power, difference and disability — throughout his work, the lessons are everywhere.”

Shakespeare’s First Folio comes to Emory

At Emory, Shaw has had an opportunity to delve even further into Shakespeare in new and innovative ways, helping bring revered centuries-old texts squarely into the digital age.

For the past year, he’s served as project lead and curator for “Shakespeare and the Players,” an educational online collection of over 1,000 postcards featuring Shakespearean actors from the early 19th and 20th century and the larger project “Shakespeare’s World at Emory.”

The online exhibits were originally collected, curated and managed by longtime Emory English professor Harry Rusche. Shaw worked with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship to coordinate the redesign and expansion of the sites, timed to coincide with this fall’s worldwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

It also precedes next month’s arrival of “First Folio!” The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare,” a national traveling exhibition of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Emory University has been selected as the sole site in Georgia to exhibit the First Folio, which will be on display at the Michael C. Carlos Museum from Nov. 5 through Dec. 11, 2016.

To celebrate the First Folio, Emory is hosting an extensive slate of events and related exhibitions about Shakespeare and his world.

These include “To the Great Variety of Readers: Publishing Shakespeare," an exhibition of the Second, Third and Fourth Folios, on display in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library now through Oct. 28, then again from April 3 through May 15. The free exhibit is made possible by the loan of the Second and Third Folios from Rose Library benefactor Stuart A. Rose.

The Second, Third and Fourth Folios will move to the Carlos Museum while the First Folio is on display there. Having Shakespeare’s first four folios together in one room offers an extraordinary perspective, says Shaw, who helped prepare educational materials for the exhibit.

In a public essay, Shaw described the “business model” that was incubated during the winter of 1623, when two actors — John Heminge and Henry Condell — created the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, many of which had never been published before.

“They tell us about English print culture and help us understand the rise of Shakespeare from a producer of popular entertainment to a literary icon known the world over,” he wrote.

Scholarship for public consumption

The First Folio also provided an important marketing experiment, Shaw notes — a success story that inspired publication of the Second Folio, which proved so popular that many simply tossed out the First Folio, “sold pages from them, or auctioned them off for much less than the original price.”

It also played a critical role in “establishing the genre of theater as literary art as something worth buying, studying and reading, and perhaps emulating literary art,” he adds.

This year’s Shakespeare celebration also led Shaw to an internship centered around “The New World in the Age of Shakespeare,” an upcoming exhibition in the Carlos Museum that explores the playwright’s inspiration for the setting of “The Tempest,” which may have had its roots in the newly encountered Americas.

The exhibit, which runs Jan. 14 through March 26, 2017, pairs the Rose Library’s Fourth Folio with several engravings from Theodor de Bry’s “Americae” volumes, a series devoted to Columbus’s travels in the Americas, the customs of American inhabitants and the mistreatment of the native population by Catholic Spaniards.

For Shaw, who holds research interests in issues of race, disease and disability in Early Modern literature and culture, that experience has offered potent lessons in “converting scholarship for public consumption.”

“It’s one thing to write a paper for a scholarly audience, but curating an exhibit for a library or museum is a very different kind of audience,” he says.

“Overall, it’s really taught me a lot about my own scholarship, too — thinking about who will be reading it and how I can make it most useful for others.”

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