Beyond the Stacks

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Fall/ Winter 03


Beyond the Stacks, by Professor Thomas Fulton

There are few things that transport students into the past as effectively as a really old book. Last week, I took my Renaissance drama class to the best time-machine on campus: the Special Collections department of Alexander Library. There, we had a look at the primary texts we had been studying thus far in class: pages from medieval plays, first editions of Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, and a fascinating series of Bibles.

Thanks largely to the generosity of alums over the past two centuries, Rutgers has a spectacular collection of Bibles from the early modern period. In our visit, we were able to see an edition of the Bible that King James I, in the beginning of his reign of England, had called "seditious and traitorous": the Geneva Bible, created by exiles during Mary I's reign in Calvin's Geneva, and brought back with the accession of the new Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. We were able to see for ourselves the reason James had taken such offence: annotations, elaborately crafted to fit in the margins, a few of which "alloweth," as James protested, "disobedience to Kings." Was this Bible (or its annotations) really such a threat to authority?

Looking back at Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play performed before James himself, we saw a play rife with allusions not only to this repudiated Bible but also to its "seditious" marginal notes. Does Shakespeare's subtle use of biblical allusion criticize James's arrogations of Divine Right? How does the play comment on the King's condemnation of England's most popular Bible? Also in the collection, thanks to the generosity of an alumnus from 1842, we saw the spectacular product of James's decree: the popular 1611 King James Bible - a book without any marginal notes to explain that the Bible is not always sympathetic to the powers that be.

Some important Bibles are still missing from Rutgers' exciting collection, including the Bible officially sanctioned under Queen Elizabeth. Several successive editions feature a frontispiece with the Queen flanked by allegorical figures, such as Mercy and Justice. Studying these iconographic representations, which combine political power and religious orthodoxy, can also help us understand this combination in Shakespearean drama. To do this, we needed to turn to one of the many electronic resources that have transformed the nature of archival research: Early English Books Online. EEBO is an electronic database of thousands of books published from 1475 to 1700. Students at Rutgers can use the library's subscription to view scanned images of whole books from collections all over the world. We were able to compare multiple frontispieces in a matter of minutes, looking at the images Shakespeare himself might have seen.

The scholarly and pedagogical possibilities of electronic resources grow at an astonishing rate, and I am eager to see Rutgers continue its dedication to the acquisition of these invaluable research tools. Using powerful databases for research is more than just convenient: it allows us to ask, and answer, important questions about literary and historical texts. For example, with the right databases, students could search the history of English Bibles to see if and how a phrase such as "measure for measure" appears, and then search through thousands of texts by Shakespeare's contemporaries, to see how they use the same phrase. If having the chance to turn the pages of a first edition of Shakespeare produces one kind of awe, the ability to search through millions of pages of text, in moments, creates another. Taken together, they engender both a reverence for the past and an excitement about the possibilities of the future.

Related Links
Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers

EEBO - Early English Books Online (access is restricted to Rutgers students, faculty, and staff)

The Research Guide for English Literatures includes a list of online resources, many of which are open-access

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