By: Madeline Linnell ‘17
“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.”
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 immortalizes the lover to whom the poem addresses, and not necessarily the poet himself. The concluding couplet reads, “So, till the judgment that yourself arise, / You live in this”—the sonnet—“and dwell in lovers’ eyes,” the poet. However, 400 years have past since his death, and Shakespeare proves to be the eternal one. Uncannily, he continues to capture the imagination of his audience with his genius use of the English language. According to tradition, April 23 marked the death of the Bard, issuing celebrations worldwide—and Gordon College has now officially joined the party.
“Vining’s Shakespeare: Highlights from the Edward Payson Vining Collection” opened to the public Dec. 9 in Barrington and closed Dec. 15. Pulling it together, however, required it to be a team effort. History student Sarah Larlee ’17 said the entire event was “David Goss’ brain child.” Mary-Ellen Smiley and Professor Damon DiMauro of the Linguistics Department curated the exhbition. DiMauro handpicked the passages that were to be on display (i.e., opening pages of “The Life of Marcus Antonius” in Plutarch’s Lives).
The exhibition showcases a wealth of materials. Among them are a Second Folio (1632), Fourth Folio (1685), nineteenth-century facsimile of the First Folio, Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives (which, according to DiMauro, Shakespeare consulted), and the King James Bible from the late seventeenth century. DiMauro said he hoped the exhibition would “whet [student’s] appetites to experience something special” as well as publicize the college as “we”—Gordon faculty, especially the History Department—“want people to use the collection.”
So valuable are these items that Chris Jones of CTS installed a security system. The entire Vining Collection “was estimated to be worth $50,000” when it was first given to the College, said the exhibition memo. The folios in particular are extremely precious given the fickle nature of Shakespearean scholarship. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website, “When William Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half of his plays had ever been printed, in small one-play editions called quartos. Another 18 plays are known today only because they are included in the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of the plays.” Gordon has the Second Folio published nine years after the First. According to Professor Damon DiMauro, the Second Folio bears a few alterations from the First.
Yet how did the College acquire such an esteemed set of Shakespearean materials? Edward Payson Vining’s son-in-law, Charles Otis, donated the Vining Collection, Edward Payson Vining’s personal bibliophilic library, to the College in 1921. Vining earned his fortune in the railway industry, afterwards dedicating his days of retirement accruing rare books for his collection and research. Nathan Wood’s history of Gordon College, School of Christ, reads, “He [Vining] not only became a specialist in New Testament Greek, but learned to read more than fifty languages, including many dialects of mission fields.” Vining’s extensive collection of bibles, including early English bibles, fostered “the deepest interest” on part of Charles Otis to donate the materials to a religious school, Gordon College of Theology and Missions (as it was known then).
However, bibles were not the only items Vining studied. Vining’s scholarship was most commonly known for his Hamlet theory—that the Danish Prince (Hamlet) was in fact a woman. Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet is also on display in Barrington.
Vining was not a rich man who collected a bunch of old books and coined strange theories for the sake originality. Instead, he was a rich man who collected a bunch of old books and coined strange theories that actually bear great merit. “Vining sought to show that Hamlet’s comportment and manner of reasoning were essentially feminine in nature,” the memo continues, “Hamlet’s feigned maleness could then explain “his” brusque treatment of Ophelia and also nuance “his” fondness for Horatio.” The theory is acknowledged in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and even “shaped Danish actress Asta Nielsen’s 1920 version for the silver screen,” says the exhibition memo. A clip of Nielsen’s performance is shown in the exhibition.
DiMauro, who chose the materials on exhibit as well as the exact passages to be put on display, said, “It’s really amazing for a small liberal arts college to have this.” He could not think of any other U.S. colleges that possessed such a rich and extensive collection of rare books. One comparable example, though, could be Wellesley College located southwest of Boston.
With an all women’s, undergraduate population of 2,474 in 2014 (Gordon has 1,657 undergraduate and graduate students), Wellesley College takes pride of its 12,000 volumes of items now in its Rare Books Collection. Even so, Gordon College’s Vining’s Collection still proves novel compared to Wellesley, as it does not have the endowment Wellesley has: 1.854 billion USD to Gordon’s 35.9 million USD.
The excitement of opening night was bolstered by the presence of Karin Coonrod, the keynote speaker. A Gordon alumnus (’76), Coonrod is both Shakespeare scholar and thespian. She serves as a faculty member at Yale School of Drama and founded two theatre companies, the Arden Party and Compagnia de’ Colombari. In the talk, Coonrod recounted her summer project: directing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the city of Venice as a tribute to both the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and 500th anniversary of the Jewish ghetto’s formation in Venice.
She remembered, after being offered the job, being “terrified” at the prospect. The Merchant of Venice is notoriously anti-Semitic. Instead of overlooking this adversity, though, Coonrod opted to look deeper into the play: what was at the heart of it? A major part of what she found was this: the human temptation to marginalize the other, foreigner or Jew, in this case. It is symptomatic of fearing a loss of belonging, and giving into such fears, blinds the self to any points of commonality. Her insight led her to choose five actors—of different ethnicities, races and sexes—to play the part of Shylock as if to say, what really is the difference that makes one deserved of rebuke and not the other? Reveling in the irony of this fear, Coonrod said, “We are all Shylock.” The message is all too relevant.
Populism sweeps the Western world, notably through the U.K. (with Brexit), the rise of the Five Stars Party in Italy, National Front Party in France, and President-elect Donald Trump’s victory here in the U.S. All of these movements are distinctive and complex in their own right; however, they all reflect both a growing sense of being left out and retaliation, whatever the scale, to the other—refugee, dark skinned, woman, Muslim. These are, to name a few, the Shylocks of today.
(To learn more about this growing trend, click here for the Washington Post article “It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why.”)
Perhaps taking an interest in old books, like those in the Vining Collection, can provoke one’s mindset, so focused on one’s own needs and desires, to go beyond oneself and into the past, amid the past’s ideas, failures, triumphs and wisdom. Perhaps the practice can help one learn how people like Shakespeare would have understood realities besetting the world today.
Shakespeare especially proves an unfailing source of insight into the human condition. As the Digital Projects Associate at the Folger, Gabrielle Linnell, said, “We continue to care about these plays, to be surprised by them and be fascinated by them, for so many reasons. When he writes about family, about falling in love with the wrong person or finding out that someone you trusted has betrayed you, or about the search for significance, or hoping for redemption, it’s like a shock of recognition. These plays have shaped the way we think about the most important human experiences. Shakespeare remains a surprise every time.”