BRIAN LAMB: Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, when did you first notice in your life politicians using Shakespeare's quotes?
MICHAEL WITMORE: Well, I think I noticed it when I was first in Washington. I lived here in 1989. And it was hard to escape Shakespeare, because politicians, whether they know it or not, are often saying Shakespeare's words.
And I think it's something that's really important to American politics. It's something that allows politicians to connect with audiences. And the ability to quote Shakespeare gives a politician a certain kind of weight and heft.
LAMB: You tell me if I'm wrong, but Senator Robert Byrd was the greatest user of Shakespeare in the history of the Senate.
WITMORE: I believe that's correct. And I think Robert Byrd was also probably the greatest classical orator in the Senate. He was called the Cicero of the Senate. And he was very fond of using ornate, rhetorical clauses, and I think that's one of the distinctive things about him in his work on the floor.
LAMB: He's deceased, but we have a compilation of the many times he was on the floor of the Senate talking about using Shakespeare.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT BYRD: O, that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth. Then with a passion would I shake the world.
One drop of blood drawn from thy country's bosom should grieve thee more than streams of foreign gore.
I as rich in having such a jewel as twenty seas.
Of these covering heavens fall on their heads like dew, for they are worthy to inlay heaven with stars.
As we leave for the evening, give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What did you hear?
WITMORE: I heard a very theatrical senator. He picks passages that are so poetic and full of images, and he also moves around. You notice that he's got his hand moving here. He's almost ready to walk around. He sounds almost like an English professor.
LAMB: So what is like, though, for somebody like me that's not a Shakespeare expert and you fight to understand what he's saying.
WITMORE: Well sometimes you have to just go with the music of the words, the poetic images, the sound of the rhymes, and also the way in which, as Senator Byrd did, you're able to pause and linger over a long phrase and then stop and keep going.
I think he's really using the rhythms of the language, which is something that Shakespeare did so brilliantly, so that he can take English and he can put it into high gear at one moment and then he can slow down. And that's something that Shakespeare lets you do if you're a politician.
LAMB: I have an article from the New York Times in July of 2010 by Stephen Marche or Marche, I'm not sure he pronounces it. This is just one quote from his article. "Most politicians quote Shakespeare badly, if at all, with a special emphasis on 'at all.'" Is that fair?
WITMORE: Well I think maybe the longer quotations are harder to reproduce, but politicians are saying Shakespeare's words often whether they know it or not. There are, there are words that Shakespeare invented that we use, and we don't really know that they were his. Just to give you one is bedroom. The first use of that word seems to be with Shakespeare.
Now, you're going to use a lot of words when you're speaking on the Senate floor. But I think to Marche's point, you know, do they quote him accurately? I don't really think that matters. I think that Shakespeare is kind of in the bloodstream of our culture, and we often get him wrong, but we're close enough that people can hear that connection.
LAMB: We found this fun video on YouTube. We don't know who the man is. Maybe you know the voice, but he's doing exactly what you're talking about, putting a bunch of quotes together that people don't know are from Shakespeare . Here we go.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MALE: If you cannot understand my argument and declare, "It's Greek to me," you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claim to be "more sinned against than sinning," you are quoting Shakespeare. If you recall your "salad days," you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act "more in sorrow than in anger," if your "wish is father to the thought," if your lost property has "vanished into thin air," you are quoting Shakespeare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: I think that's a great example. And it's funny that you get it from the internet, because Shakespeare is on stage, he's in film, and he's in books, but people on the internet are performing his plays. You get students who are just taking apart different parts and performing them for their laptops and uploading them. So Shakespeare is a public property.
LAMB: Do you recognize some of those quotes, where they're from?
WITMORE: Sure. Sure. "I'm a man more sinned against than sinning" is King Lear. That's one of the greatest lines from Shakespeare's plays. And it's one that politicians could use to say, "I may be wrong but you're more wrong, and what you're doing to me is worse than what I ever did to you." "I'm a man more sinned against than sinning." It's a great line.
LAMB: We have some photographs to show everyone how close the Folger Shakespeare Library is to the United States Capitol, and put a couple of pictures on the screen so you can tell us. Here's one, for instance. You can see the Capitol has got scaffolding all around it, but how far is that from the Capitol to your place? Right to the door, front door, right there on the left?
WITMORE: So from that point, our front door, you're two blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, and you're diagonally positioned from the U.S. Supreme Court, and you're right next to the Library of Congress.
LAMB: How did this building, the Folger Shakespeare Library, get there in the first place? And when was it built?
WITMORE: Well the Folger Shakespeare Library was built in 1932 by an industrialist named Henry Folger and his wife, Emily Folger. He was president of Standard Oil in New York. He made a fortune, and fortunately for us, he chose to spend it on books. And the person he loved was Shakespeare.
So he created the largest collection in the world of Shakespeare materials. And when he died- before he died, he said, "I'm going to build a library, and I want to put it in Washington, D.C. as a gift to the American people."
And that's really important, because he understood that Americans, politicians, really have a connection to this writer. And I love having the Folger be part of that neighborhood, because if you look at the U.S. Capitol and look just to the east, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Folger, those represent the language arts in our country.
You've got the law, which is about language. So I would just say we're part- I mean, you look at that bit of East Capitol, that is word central for the United States. And we're really pleased to be a part of that.
LAMB: How were you chosen to be the director?
WITMORE: I was interviewed, and I had to make application. I wrote a letter. And you need to be a Shakespeare scholar. You need to be able to connect with the hundreds of people who come from over the world to read our collection and to write.
But you also need to be able to run an institution that has a theater program. We do three Shakespeare plays a year in the first Tudor Theater in North America. We have that in our building.
We do exhibitions. Right now we have a beautiful exhibition on the history of longitude. How did they figure out how far are east or west they were when they were navigating? And then we've got all of the books. We're bringing in thousands of students who are performing on our stage. They're getting into the act and they're performing.
So I think it would have been hard to be qualified to do all of it, but I knew I was qualified to do a lot of it.
LAMB: You came from where?
WITMORE: I came from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
LAMB: What did you do there?
WITMORE: I was an English professor, and I taught Shakespeare.
LAMB: How many years?
WITMORE: I taught there for three years. Prior to that, I taught at Carnegie Mellon University for 10 years.
LAMB: And you got your education where?
WITMORE: I went to Vassar College, and then I went and got my PhD at the University of California Berkeley.
LAMB: So let's listen a little bit more to some politicians, and we'll continue our questions about the Folger Shakespeare Library. Here is Harry Reid on the floor of the Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARRY REID: Parting is such sweet sorrow, and that's what I said to him, and it really is. That's from Shakespeare, "Goodnight, goodnight. Parting is such sweet sorrow," and it really is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: He's quoting Romeo & Juliet. Clearly, it's an emotional moment. I think he's got a big challenge there as a politician. He needs to make an emotional connection, and there are many things that you could say in that situation that are wrong, that wouldn't work.
And so one of the reasons why people turn to Shakespeare is tried and true. That quotation actually comes from a courtship scene. It's about romantic love. But like many politicians, he can just take a phrase and then adapt it to his own situation. He's saying goodbye. Parting is such sweet sorrow.
LAMB: How often do politicians on Capitol Hill come over to your library?
WITMORE: They come over all the time. I think we're very lucky that we're close to the Capitol, but I also think it's very, very important that Shakespeare never took sides. Shakespeare is a writer who saw the whole world and all the complexity of our lives.
So we have people- Congress, members of Congress, members of the judiciary who come. They enjoy our exhibitions. We were fortunate to have a meeting of the female senators who got together and saw parts of our collection and had dinner and got to talk about the Renaissance, looking at some of these great materials including manuscripts from Queen Elizabeth and a beautiful painting of Elizabeth. But there is a very successful female leader, someone who had great challenges.
And so I felt very honored that those female senators chose to come and that they could see those connections between the challenges of a truly great- she was a monarch, she wasn't a politician, but her predicament as a woman in politics, it was difficult. And so it was very exciting to be able to share that with the leaders of our country.
LAMB: Is there any way to know what William Shakespeare's politics would have been in today's world?
WITMORE: Oh my gosh. We speculate about that all the time. I'll tell you what I think. I think that Shakespeare understood that family politics are the country's politics. Those history plays, you see that the problems of dynasties, the problems of armies and invasions, they often turn on family relationships. And so, I'm not sure that's a left or right issue, but it's definitely something about politics that he was aware of.
I would also say that there are moments in his plays where he seems very skeptical of crowds. There is a scene of a peasant rebellion in the Henry XI plays. There is Coriolanus, a play where the masses rise up and make these demands of a general.
And in those scenes, Shakespeare shows the masses being excitable, uneducated, ignorant, dangerous, so it's kind of interesting. I think that he knew that there was a danger to having, let's say, the rule of all. And I think he would have been friendly to our kind of constitutional democracy. I don't know. He wrote plays that flattered kings and queens, so he believed in the monarchy on some level.
The question for Shakespeare, and it would be- maybe this is the way to think about this issue. For Shakespeare, the culture war was really between Protestants and Catholics. That was the left and the right of his world.
On the Protestant left were people who wanted to remake the world into a new Jerusalem. Every individual had a direct connection with God. And then on the right, there was the Catholic Church with its rituals that had been the religion of England for so long. And this was the tension. Catholicism was illegal during Shakespeare's time. He may have come from a Catholic family. So when we sit down to think about what was really going on behind the scenes in Shakespeare's mind, I think the most relevant kind of battle that he was probably aware of was between Protestants and Catholics.
LAMB: From the Senate floor during a filibuster, here is Senator Ted Cruz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TED CRUZ: "For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. Be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed that they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
I would observe to the Senator of Kentucky that those glorious sentiments expressed centuries ago are precisely applicable to the stand here tonight, because it is a stand against high odds. Indeed, it is a stand against an administration that refuses to acknowledge limits on its power.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: That's a really fascinating clip, Brian. So he's quoting from Henry V. It's the speech that Henry gives before leading into a major battle. Often, people who talk about leadership talk about that speech, the power of the king to motivate people to go into a battle against all odds.
It's so tough to quote a play, because the senator is objecting to the monarchical tendencies of a president who is acting by his- on his own authority, but the person who delivered those lines in the play is a monarch. So we can use Shakespeare maybe even against the purposes that were originally intended, but I think that's a tricky one because he's trying to say one thing with Shakespeare, and I think Shakespeare was on a different side at that moment.
LAMB: Going back to that op ed piece in the New York Times in 2010 from Stephen Marche, he says, "No American politician today wants to seem too educated. Quoting Shakespeare is risky as a rhetorical strategy."
WITMORE: That may be right. So in the 19th century, people who were educated, who had learned to write, were exposed to this study called rhetoric, the art of public speaking. It's the one that Senator Byrd knew so well.
And those trainings that you'd get in, you know, well before you go to university, those happened by learning to quote Shakespeare. You would deliver speeches, you would refine all of that. And that tradition is really gone now. Our speakers need to be much more flexible. They need to- they need to be able to broadcast to people that "I may know more than you, but I'm also like you."
And so I think our political discourse has been turned in some different directions. We still quote Shakespeare in moments like the ones we've seen are important, but I think politicians really need to have some more down to earth way that doesn't sound like it's coming from on high. And that's where you get into the press release and the talking points.
Political speech right now tends to be much more about focus, goals, precision, and that's where it's tough, I think, for Shakespeare to work his way back in.
LAMB: Here's a completely different take on Shakespeare from Sarah Palin.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH PALIN: Thank you, friends. I am so glad to be here, truly. It makes me think of that famous speech from Henry V, you know, the one where young King Henry bucks up the troops before he leads them into battle. Because you know, that's what I do. I quote Shakespeare.
No, I'm more likely to say "buck up or stay in the truck" when we talk about defending our rights, but it works. And we are a happy few, a band of brothers and sisters. We're fighting the good fight, a fight for the Constitution. This is a fight for the future of freedom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: That's from an NRA event.
WITMORE: I think that's very sophisticated. I think she's able to use Shakespeare and take some great parts of that famous Agincourt speech, and she delivers them. And then she's able to mix it with something that sounds like just the opposite: "buck up or stay in the truck."
And she's doing the things that great politicians know how to do, which is to go from the high end of our language and our culture to something that's more close to the ground. But I would say this, Shakespeare himself was really, really good at hitting both sides of our language.
And just to put that in context, some of the most powerful moments in Shakespeare's plays have the heroes using these grounded words. They are the Anglo-Saxon words in our language that come from the life world. And "buck or stay in the truck" is exactly that kind of language. But then they can lift it to this other place, which is the language that came with the Norman conquest when French and Latin came to Britain, and those are the words that are connected to bureaucracy, to more ornate forms of expression.
But I think that Abraham Lincoln, when he read Shakespeare so carefully, what he got from reading Shakespeare, he wasn't always necessarily quoting Shakespeare, but he realized that it's important for a politician to be able to play all the octaves, to sometimes do something that's very ornate but then stop and do something that's really direct. And I think Sarah Palin just hit both of those sides.
LAMB: Dick Durbin, number two in the Democratic Party in the United States Senate, on the floor of the Senate talking about Hamlet.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DICK DURBIN: I spoke to our chaplain before we started this session about a line in Shakespeare that I have always struggled to understand. It is from Hamlet, and it's the line in his famous soliloquy when he said, "Conscience makes cowards of us all."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What does that mean?
WITMORE: That's a good one. What that means is that you decide you want to do something, and then you think about it, whether it's right, whether it's right for you, and you pause. So your conscience is sitting on your shoulders saying, "don't do it, don't do it." And instead of being a hero, you feel like a coward.
LAMB: Shakespeare lived when?
WITMORE: So Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. He lived- he started his life in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the son of a glover, of someone who made things. There's some parts of his life that we have to only guess about, but he ends up in London and becomes the most successful playwright in history.
LAMB: How much was he split from his wife when he lived in London and she lived in Oxford, or Stratford, I mean?
WITMORE: That's a really good question. He spent time away from her. And one of the things that we think about is what was his relationship to her? In his will he left her his second best bed, which sounds insulting, but there may be other reasons why that was actually a more intimate gift to give her.
One of the things that a scholar at the Folger Shakespeare Library has started to think in her research is that she may have been managing a business in Stratford in order to bankroll him while he was in London. That's a Georgetown professor, Lena Cowen Orlin.
So I'd love to know more about that, and I think if we do learn more about Shakespeare, it will be because we find more documents that are connected to his life.
LAMB: How much do you trust what you know about Shakespeare, even the time that he lived and that he was only 52 when he died, and what did he die of?
WITMORE: That's a great question. We don't know exactly what he died of.
LAMB: So where do you- how do you trust the information, and where does it come from?
WITMORE: Right, well so a really good answer to this will come in 2016. That's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. And the Folger Shakespeare Library will be hosting an exhibition called Shakespeare, Life of an Icon.
And we will bring together almost every document that is directly connected to William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford who lived in London. This will be collections from our collection, from the British Library, from the birthplace trust, all in one place, probably the first time since Shakespeare died, that they've ever been in one place.
But among those will be documents about his birth and about his death. There will be legal documents. We know that he brought lawsuits. And so part of what we have to do is to put things together from legal documents, which have a certain amount of trustworthiness because they're bureaucratic documents.
The other part that we rely on, Shakespeare was a famous man, and people wrote about him during his lifetime. So you will get people complaining about him, saying, "who is this upstart crow, this swan of Avon? He's from- he's from Warwickshire. He's from- he is not from London. He didn't go to university."
And so those complaints help us understand how people thought about him, and they also help connect the body of work that is his plays to what we know from the court records and other kinds of records.
LAMB: Here's Michele Bachmann talking about Shakespeare.
WITMORE: It just doesn't quit.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELE BACHMANN: And it was Press Secretary Jay Carney who admitted that the sequestration was President Obama's idea. There are numerous Republicans that voted against the sequestration because we knew all of these calamities were in the future. And so it reminds me of the Shakespeare line, "Thou protesteth too much." Didn't you know this was going to happen? We knew it. That's why we voted against this bill.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: You know she wasn't reading that, so it was obviously off the top of her head. Where does that come from?
WITMORE: Right. It's "she doth protest too much." Hamlet, or sorry, Macbeth. But it's very common for people to just reach out from memory and try and grab a piece of Shakespeare. Another very common one is, "alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well," but actually in the play it says, "I knew him, Horatio."
And once someone makes a misquote- once someone misquotes Shakespeare, other people hear it and then they keep doing it. So, you know, we like to have the sources; at the Folger we've the first editions, you can come and check.
But Shakespeare is a living- he's like a living encyclopedia of our language, and Michele Bachmann can pluck out a short piece. It's not exactly right, but it helps her make her point. And I think her point there is people who- it's kind of tricky. People who are against- who actually are for this are pretending like they're not. And by protesting too much, they're showing us that actually there's a lie and there's something behind it.
LAMB: I saw in your financial report on your website that you got $773,000 from the federal government in 2013 and that your total expenditures were $20,745,000. Why the money from the government, and what's it going to be used for, right?
WITMORE: So the money that we get from the government is from two sources. There's the Library and Information Sciences grant, which is part of the federal government. And it funds research projects in libraries to make libraries great.
We got funds from them. I think it's called the IMLS. And then we get funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And they've funded some really important initiatives for us.
We did a terrific show called "The King James Bible, Manifold Greatness." And we showed the history of how we came to the King James Bible and what it's meant to Americans. And that show came to Washington and then it went around the country.
Another exciting thing that the NEH has made possible for us is a tour of our big book, the First Folio, to all 50 states and to two territories in 2016. So the NEH is helping us take that book all over the country. We'll open it to the "To Be or Not To Be" speech, and then we'll help to interpret it for visitors. It will be in public libraries. It will be in museums. But millions of people, I hope, will see that book and will get a sense of not only just the source of it, the fact that we still have these books, but be able to recognize that this book still speaks to us.
And so the federal grants that we get are advancing often the kinds of research projects we do but also the way we interpret Shakespeare for others.
LAMB: By the way, on the King James Bible, did you have any problem with the church-state problem? You know, theâ€¦
WITMORE: We did not. We're neither church nor state, so we can be host to members of Congress, members of clergy. There was- there was one book that was very popular called the Sinners' Bible, where a misprint led to the Ten Commandments reading, "Thou shalt commit adultery." And there were a lot of people who wanted to pose with that book. So, we won't name names.
But it was- it's interesting to me to see, I mean, it's tough with Shakespeare. There are ways in which you could talk about him that are very political and that are, you know, or very academic. But Shakespeare is part of a world that is big, and it's the same world that produced the King James Bible.
If you look at Shakespeare and the King James Bible, those are probably the two most influential texts or documents for Americans. They're the books that people read if they could read in the 19th century.
LAMB: Let's look at some more quotes from our friend from the YouTube. I wish we knew who he was, but we don't. There was no identification, but it shows you how- again, how many words and phrases come from Shakespeare.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MALE: If you've ever refused to "budge an inch" or suffered from "green-eyed jealousy," if you've played "fast and loose," if you've been "tongue-tied" or "a tower of strength," "hoodwinked" or "in a pickle," if you've "knitted your brows," made "a virtue of necessity," insisted on "fair play," slept "not one wink," "stood on ceremony," "danced attendance," "laughed yourself into stitches," had "short shrift," "cold comfort" or "too much of a good thing," if you've "seen better days" or lived in a "fool's paradise," why, "be that as it may," "the more fool you," for it is a "foregone conclusion" that you are, "as good luck would have it," quoting Shakespeare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Could you do a lot more of this?
WITMORE: We could- we could go on and on. And Iâ€¦
LAMB: Fast and loose.
WITMORE: Fast and loose.
LAMB: In a pickle.
WITMORE: In a pickle. Making a virtue of necessity. Fast and loose is good for politics if you want to say that your opponent is misreading the law. If you want to make a case for taking an action that is uncomfortable but must happen, then it's making a virtue of necessity. There are a lot of phrases in there that can get you out of a tight corner.
LAMB: How much of the language of Shakespeare was actually the way they spoke back in the 1500s?
WITMORE: That's a great question Brian. English in England and Britain is pretty fluid when Shakespeare was around. So there are different dialects being spoken all over Britain. The north doesn't sound like the south; the west doesn't like the east.
What happens when print is introduced in England and it becomes a dominant media form is that English starts to stabilize into the form that is spoken in London. And so Shakespeare reflects the English of London at the end of 16th century, and that's interesting because that's the English that ends up becoming the official dialect of English as time goes on.
LAMB: Folger Shakespeare Library is available to the average person in what way?
WITMORE: So we are open and we're free. Free and open to the public. We have an exhibition hall where you can come and see great exhibitions for free. Right now, we've got the history of longitude and some of the most important timepieces ever created. We do three Shakespeare plays a year in our Tudor Theater.
But- and here's one I think that people don't expect: thousands of school children come into the Folger, and they perform on our stage as part of our teacher- teaching Shakespeare festivals. And it's a real thrill for a high school student, a junior high school student, to be able to perform on that stage as he or she is getting to know Shakespeare. It's something they'll remember all their lives.
But I would invite your viewers to come and explore. We're America's home for Shakespeare, we're free and open to the public, and we're two blocks east of the US Capitol.
LAMB: Do you have a large endowment?
WITMORE: We have an endowment that covers the core costs of maintaining the rare materials that are in our vault.
LAMB: How much is that?
WITMORE: The endowment is worth over $300 million right now.
LAMB: And where did that money come from?
WITMORE: That money came from Mr. Folger who, when he died, he created a trust in the care of Amherst College. We are one corporate entity with Amherst College. And Amherst
College manages our endowment. So we've been very fortunate to have growth over the course of almost 80 years.
And for a place that needs to take care of some of the most important documents in the world, I think it guarantees that we'll always be able to do that. But more importantly, it gives us an anchor so that when I do fundraising for my job, when I ask for support for the Folger, I can say to donors or people who are excited about our mission, "We will always be here."
And we've got that ability to stay the course. We've been around for a long time. And our mission points us at William Shakespeare, the Renaissance, just a hugely important body of work and thought and ideas for this country and for all the students in America.
LAMB: Amherst College is in Massachusetts, a long way from Washington. Why did they want to be involved in this, and how did they get involved in it?
WITMORE: Well when Mr. Folger died, there was a story, I believe it was in the New York Times, and the trustees of Amherst College learned that the greatest Shakespeare collection in the world and an endowment to support it had been left to the trustees.
The will is written in such a way that if the trustees refused to take the collection, it would go to another university, and if that university chose not to do it, it would go to another university. So Mr. Folger was an Amherst alum. They saw the value of the collection, and they took it over.
LAMB: Let's go back to politics for a moment. Here is Senator Ted Kennedy, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and the former Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
EDWARD KENNEDY: And eventually we will- under the senate rules, we'll have an opportunity to make these- to have these offerings, and we- of amendments on the minimum wage, on other measures.
MALE: Mr. President.
The senator from Wyoming.
ALAN SIMPSON: Mr. President, I think we could go on, and we may, but I think as we get back to the substance of minimum wage, and apparently the senator does that, and I think I misspoke earlier about Shakespeare. I think that Senator Kennedy is King Lear and I am Puck, because certainly he launched one end of the tempest there, and here I am.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What does that mean?
WITMORE: I'm not sure I know what that means. That was Senator Simpson, isn't it right? Well Senator Simpson was a reader at the Folger, and I'm told that he spent time in the library even when there were votes on the senate. So he's a huge fan of Shakespeare, and he read a lot of Shakespeare when he was in our library.
LAMB: Does it- does it make any sense to you that he would call Senator Kennedy King Lear?
WITMORE: I'd need to know more about the context, but I think he said King Lear launching something into the tempest, which is not- I don't think he's quoting the Tempest, the play. He's talking about King Lear being on the heath and suffering this kind of breakdown at the hands of the elements and then hurling these insults to the gods, at the heavens. And Senator Simpson is positioning himself as Puck, this playful spirit from A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think it almost always it's better to be Puck than King Lear.
LAMB: Here is Representative Trent Franks quoting Shakespeare in support of the balanced budget amendment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRENT FRANKS: But in this moment in history, America may get a second chance, Madam Speaker, but we may not get it again. You know, I don't often quote Shakespeare, but long ago, he wrote in a play this quote that I think applies to us today. He said, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. But omitted, all the voyage of their lives is bound in shallows and in miseries. Upon such a full sea we now find ourselves afloat, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our venture." In this time of crisis, we are also standing in a place where the tide is high and the opportunity is real.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: There, by the way, is no teleprompter on the floor when they're doing that, so it's obviously from memory.
WITMORE: That's great. That's Julius Caesar, and it's about taking opportunity, just grabbing it. I love what he did when he said, "I don't often quote Shakespeare." And then he launches into several lines that he's got in memory. It's an old trick to say I'm not about to do this thing and then go ahead and do it.
But one way to get into Shakespeare is by saying, "I don't usually quote Shakespeare, butâ€¦" and then I think we heard Sarah Palin do the same thing. It's a way of talking about something without talking about it.
LAMB: So if you're home watching this and you are saying, you know, "Shakespeare, where was that from?" and all of that, what's your recommendation? How can people research where language like this comes from?
WITMORE: Well a great way to do it is to go search the plays. The plays that Shakespeare wrote are now fully digitized, and we had the opportunity at the Folger, we created the bestselling Shakespeare edition in America, and we put the text of those plays online for free at folgerdigitaltexts.org.
LAMB: Can you search?
WITMORE: You can search it all. Pick a phrase, and we'll just come right up with it, and you can see it there on your screen, you can cut it, you can paste it.
LAMB: And people that watch us can get online and get the closed caption transcript so that they miss what they're saying if they want to connect the two.
WITMORE: That's right.
LAMB: But you started as the whole business of digital analyzing that when?
WITMORE: So I was Carnegie Mellon for ten years, and I was trained as a traditional humanist scholar. I read a lot of books. I still read a lot of books. And you try to absorb as much as you can, and you sit down and you write.
But because we now have fully searchable versions of about 60,000 of the books that were printed between 1470 and 1700, we have an unprecedented opportunity to take a full view of all the words, inasmuch as we can use those 60,000 books that represent this very important period in print where print is taking off, you've got Shakespeare, you've got public theater, you've got politics, you've got a civil war in England.
And I realized that you could use some techniques from statistics, from bioinformatics, of looking for sequences of words and then asking yourself, are there some kinds of texts more of these happened? And it turns out that you can create a profile of Shakespeare's plays almost with your eyes shut using the computer, because there are just certain things that he has to do when he's writing a history play that he never does when he's writing a comedy.
LAMB: How many plays did he write?
WITMORE: We believe that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, but this was the professional theater and playwrights collaborated. So up to 30 percent of those plays include the words of other people. And in fact, computers have been used to identify what passages were created by other writers.
LAMB: Give me a sense of which play has been the most quoted of all of Shakespeare's?
WITMORE: That's a great question. I would bet that it's either Julius Caesar or Hamlet.
LAMB: And why?
WITMORE: Julius Caesar is about beautiful speeches, and there are a bunch of wonderful set pieces of politicians, "Friends, Romans, countrymen." Those tend to be very popular, and Americans read them and loved them. So I think that's one. I think Hamlet is a play that just took off in the 19th century. It's got this lonely hero who wants to avenge his father but is a little reluctant to do it. It's a great story about a really fully formed person with real problems.
LAMB: In 2011, Queen Elizabeth came to the White House. Here's President Obama using Shakespeare.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To Her Majesty, The Queen. To the vitality of the special relationship between our peoples, and in the words of Shakespeare, "To this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." To The Queen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: Brian, that has to be a high pressure moment even for someone as polished as the President. Meeting the monarch, talking about her country, quoting John of Gaunt from Richard II, a marvelous, long speech that is a tribute to England and its beauty. So I think he chose wisely in his toast.
LAMB: How did he- how did Shakespeare name his plays?
WITMORE: That's a great question. The names of the plays differ somewhat depending on what published edition you look at. So the short, kind of paperback edition of King Lear is The History of King Lear, and then the version of it that appears in the larger folio is The Tragedy of Lear.
And they're long titles. It's the way they did it. But they say it's about King Lear, but then say, and it's also about Edgar who had to go and become a man on the run, and who, you know. So I think that- I myself am curious about how the plays were named, and one thought that I have is that they were often named with proverbs. "All's well that ends well," "As you like it," which is an adage. And some of the research that I've been doing in my own work has been to try to understand why playwrights chose proverbs as titles for their plays.
LAMB: How many times have you read the 38 plays?
WITMORE: I have probably read the whole cycle four to five times, that's all 38. I tend to read them in the order in which we think they were written, just so that I am- I'm trying to piece together the career of this person. When I was teaching large lecture classes on Shakespeare, I would reread Hamlet, Othello, King Lear. So I probably read those plays 20 times.
LAMB: And what was the first play and what was the last?
WITMORE: Well, there's debate about that. It could have been one of the Henry VI plays. Maybe it was A Comedy of Errors, which is this lighthearted farce about two sets of identical twins. The late plays, the ones he wrote at the end of his career, were collaborative. It wasn't the Tempest. He wrote with other writers. It may have been Two Noble Kinsmen.
LAMB: Which play would you have read back in those days, in the 1500s, that would have predicted what we see in our own world today?
WITMORE: Well, I'll give you an example. I think when President George W. Bush was president, after 9/11, the media started to talk about the transformation of this leader from someone who as a younger person was less serious and then after this huge national tragedy became a serious- there was a change in how he saw his role.
And that harkens back to King Henry IV when Prince Hal-who's spending in the Eastcheap drinking with tinkerers, and his best friend is Falstaff, who is this riotous knight-changes when he decides to reform himself and when he meets his old drinking buddy at the end of one of these plays, he says, "Fall to thy prayers, old man. I know thee not," which is a complete repudiation of that friendship and that experience.
And I can't guess what was going through President Bush's mind after 9/11, but I do think that the media understood that there was a similar story there. And Shakespeare's stories are good because they're dramatic, they have really vivid characters, they're often about politics, because they're dynasties, and they're available for us to slot our politicians into.
And that's why Alan Simpson was fond of saying, you know, "I see my Macbeths, my Lears in Washington." It just gives you a shorthand way of trying to figure out what will happen next.
LAMB: Former Congressman from California, David Dreier on the floor of the House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID DREIER: I'd like to quote William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare said, "In such business, action is eloquence." Now Mr. Speaker, we have before us a measure that is designed to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to focus on getting our economy growing and generating job opportunities for the American people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: It's so interesting how a beautiful, short quotation from Shakespeare, "Action is eloquence," can be slotted right into a policy discussion. I mean, he's off and running about the legislation that he's talking about. Beautiful phrase. I can't remember what play it comes from, but the best way to make an impression is not to talk a lot; it's to take action. That's what he's saying.
LAMB: Folger Shakespeare Library contains what?
WITMORE: Folger Shakespeare Library is the greatest collection of original materials connected to Shakespeare and his world. And that means we cover not only Shakespeare, playwriting, lyric poetry, but the collection also represents the entire European Renaissance, the beginnings of the exploration of the Atlantic, and the particular focus is on this world of London between the 1580s and 1630s, which is the world when we're getting science with Francis Bacon, we're getting theology from Hooker, we're getting poetry and theater from Shakespeare. It's such a live moment.
The city is undergoing so many changes. There are people coming from all over the country to this one spot. Trade is alive. The entire Atlantic is being explored. Good and bad things are happening; very frightening things are happening politically. They don't know what Elizabeth's heir- who the heir will be. That's the beginning of colonization, which is something that still troubles us, but it's an amazing period in history.
And I would say that the period that's represented by our collection is a world that we could recognize. It may be the first moment in English and western history where we can look at that and say, that's our world too.
LAMB: How many books at your library?
WITMORE: So there are millions of books, but in terms of rare material, there's probably over, I want to get this right, but over- almost 300,000 books, rare books, that are printed in the first centuries of print. There are 130,000 pages of manuscript, that's handwritten manuscripts, over 400 years old.
LAMB: His handwritten manuscripts?
WITMORE: No, from all over. And then, there's all the collection that we have to have so that people can understand what's in these old books. So we have a fully browsable secondary collection that is a full city block long.
LAMB: What's First Folio?
WITMORE: So First Folio is a book printed in 1623. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's works.
LAMB: All 38, or all the sonnets too?
WITMORE: Thirty-seven. There are no sonnets in it. There are a couple of things that are important about the book. The first is that without that book, we would not have 18 of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth and The Winter's Tale. So it's the only record we have for some of the most famous plays.
The second thing that's important about it is that it's a large book. It's about like this, and large-format books were reserved for theology, philosophy, history, and to say that plays and plays only belong in a book like this was a very important statement.
The First Folio is the first book in English in that large, luxurious format that is filled only with stage plays.
LAMB: How many of those do you have?
WITMORE: We have 82 copies of this book, and there are 233 known copies in the world.
LAMB: If you sold one of those copies, what would it be worth today?
WITMORE: Well we would never sell them. They're all different, so they all have research value, every single one of them. The last- I believe that the last auction sale for a complete First Folio was over $6 million.
LAMB: Here is Robert Kennedy in 1964 eulogizing at the Democratic National Convention his brother, Jack Kennedy, who was obviously killed in '63.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT KENNEDY: Well, I think that President Kennedy- I think that- Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet, "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world would be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: That's a very powerful passage to describe the loss of a- sudden loss of a president. And it takes that death, which is a political event and a historical event, and it makes it a cosmic event.
LAMB: How often do you get a call at the library from somebody in politics wanting help with a quote?
WITMORE: We get calls like that all the time. We have a head of reference who knows a lot about Shakespeare and fields those requests. At election times, we get requests for things like a quote from Twelfth Night, which is "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." That's a really good political quotation. We get interest in that a lot.
LAMB: Back in 2004, Stephen Greenblatt was on this program. He wrote a book about Mr. Shakespeare, and we had a composite on there of the writers on Booknotes program that talked about Shakespeare. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAUREEN DOWN: What I try to do with humor and with serious columns is to let the readers see politics almost like a Shakespearean drama in the sense that you have running characters.
KENNETH ADELMAN: If you want to understand life, there's no better way than reading Shakespeare and then, discussing it with a lot of people.
HOWARD GARDNER: One of the characteristics of some extraordinary people, in particular Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats are often as used as examples. These individuals are said to have negative capability.
What negative capability means is that rather than having a strong personality themselves, they have an incredible ability to pick up the personalities of individuals around them and be able to capture in their works.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: These children have to learn English. How are they going to learn English? Let's read Shakespeare.
FRANK WU: I'm a huge Shakespeare fan. I can recite for you the opening 45 lines of Richard III from memory.
DAVID CROSBY: Shakespeare was right about the lawyers.
CORNEL WEST: I'm a new world African who dreams in a European language, dreams in English, and that language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Tony Morrison.
ALLEN GUELZO: The only figures who've had more things written about them than Lincoln are Jesus, Shakespeare, and Napoleon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WITMORE: What an incredible series of quotations. Hearing Professor Cornell West talk about his position as an African-American and an intellectual and the fact that when he dreams, he dreams in the language of Shakespeare, is amazing. I think he- I mean, I think he captures that sense that you and I may not quote Shakespeare, you know, day and night, and we may know it more or less.
But the way that Shakespeare wrote was so powerful and so suggestive that it's more like he lives in our dreams. It's when you shut your eyes and your brain is trying to figure out what this world is and put people into the right stories. The words that tell those stories were put there by great writers, and Shakespeare is one of them.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
WITMORE: I do.
WITMORE: I have an 11-year-old son.
LAMB: Is he all interested in Shakespeare?
WITMORE: My son cannot quote all 40 lines from the beginning of Richard III, but he can quote the first four.
LAMB: Is it hard to get kids interested in Shakespeare?
WITMORE: It is not. With Shakespeare, because Shakespeare wrote plays, he wrote in the form that is almost natural for kids to take up. Kids are theatrical. They want to move around, they're great mimics, and they're not as self-conscious as adults.
So when we teach Shakespeare at the Folger, and we've been doing it for 30 years, it's performance-based teaching, we say, "you may not understand all of these words, but the situation will speak for itself." Start speaking, and you'll begin to find your way into the language. What we find is that if you've had a positive experience reading Shakespeare, or more accurately, performing Shakespeare or seeing a play, the odds of your remaining connected to this writer go way up.
LAMB: Let's go back to the way we began with Robert C. Byrd to see the senator from West Virginia from the floor of the Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT BYRD: Valentine, speaking to Proteus in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, was speaking of his dearly beloved, Sylvia, when he said, "And I as rich in having such a jewel as 20 seas, if all their sand were pearl, the water nectar and the rocks pure gold." Valentine could just as well have been speaking of a good, solid, well-rounded education. "I, as rich in having such a jewel as 20 seas, if all their sand were pearl, the water nectar and the rocks pure gold."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: How does someone do that?
WITMORE: Well, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. I think that he was a natural. I think that he probably had a great memory for Shakespeare, but what he does there, he doesn't just quote Shakespeare, he performs it. And then he says why it matters. And he says- well, this is a- it's a kind of puff ball of a play. Most people don't read it or see it, but he's read it.
And he says, "I don't want to talk about the situation that's in the play. I want to talk about a great education." It's magnificent.
LAMB: How many people work at the Folger Library?
WITMORE: We have over a hundred full time staff, and then we have about 40 to 50 people working on contracts who are actors or directors.
LAMB: How big, physically, and I know you have two buildings or maybe more than that.
WITMORE: We have facilities on both sides of 3rd Street, but our main facility, 201 East Capitol, is a full city block in length, and it takes up half of one of those long city blocks in the capitol grid.
LAMB: I want to go back and show the picture so people are going to see how close it is. Do senators or congressman often walk over to the library and use the reading room, for instance?
WITMORE: Well, Senator Simpson is a great example. And we have members of Congress in the library both day and night. They come for receptions. They came for our gala celebrating Shakespeare's birthday on Thursday to raise money for our education work.
LAMB: There's the Supreme Court.
WITMORE: The Supreme Court. I'm told that the justices were debating among themselves whether Shakespeare was really the man from Stanford or Oxford, and they called and said, "Could we see the Edward de Vere bible from Oxford? We want to debate that." And within ten minutes they'd walked across the street, and the bible was waiting for them.
LAMB: How much did it cost in 1932 to build this building?
WITMORE: You know, I do not know the answer to that question. It's interesting, when it opened in 1932, it was the middle of the Depression, and it was probably the most luxurious building to be opened in Washington for a decade.
LAMB: Can the average citizen belong?
WITMORE: Absolutely. The Folger Shakespeare Library is there for the entire country. You could become a member and receive our magazine where we're talking about Shakespeare, the discoveries in our collection. We have performed Shakespeare's plays in audio books, and you can hear our editions as you're driving around the car.
LAMB: Can you go to- can you use the library?
WITMORE: To use the rare materials, we ask that you have letters of reference saying that you have an important reason to use that material. And if you have a really important reason to use it, we want you to. So it's not everybody in the whole world in that space, but the reading rooms are filled with people. Some of them are very famous professors or editors, but some of them are high school students who are fellows at the Folger. We bring them in for a month and do workshops, and they're using the collection too.
LAMB: Michael Witmore, we are out of time. We thank you, as director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, for joining us, and we'll continue this discussion.
WITMORE: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.