Advertising in Washington for the “Will & Jane” show. (Courtesy of Lloyd Wolf for the Folger Shakespeare Library)

If you’ve spotted bobble-head dolls of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen on a pink background lately in Washington, rolling around town on a sightseeing bus or standing guard at bus stops, you are witness to the unusual phenomenon that is “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.”

This exhibition, which runs through Nov. 6 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, explores the parallel routes taken by these two celebrated British authors known to the world on a first-name basis and now in their respective 400- and 200-year afterlives. What makes “Will & Jane” unusual is the mix of people and interests that it has brought together within the marble walls of the Folger, located cater-cornered to the Supreme Court.

This show is for lovers of comic books and chick lit as well as scholars toiling over precious documents in the Folger’s silent reading room. We, the curators, planned it that way. Not only did we want to speak to people beyond our university classrooms. We also wanted to see if the academic humanities could come off the defensive in a world seemingly in love with science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Instead of apologizing, can we simply share some of the riches that the humanities has to offer?

For the Folger, too, this exhibition was a bold new venture. William Shakespeare had never before shared the Great Hall with another writer, let alone one from a completely different era. And while the Folger is a one-stop-shop for Shakespeare, a destination for all things Jane Austen does not yet exist. Therefore, this project required loans from many institutions as well as private collectors — and even one high-profile shirt rental. We were uncertain if the intended tone of the show, a self-conscious mix of whimsy and scholarship, reverence and irreverence, would suit the Folger’s existing brand. Not much call for levity, after all, if you have responsibility for 82 of the world’s First Folios.

The risk paid off. The combined star power of “Will & Jane” is proving exponential rather than merely additive. Only in recent decades has Austen become one of the most visible ambassadors of English literature, a position occupied by Shakespeare since actor David Garrick catapulted him into celebrity in the 18th century. Our not-so-clandestine feminist agenda was to put Austen on Shakespeare’s turf as a peer. But since one of them has a further two centuries on the celebrity clock, it seemed prudent to place them side by side at their respective 200-year marks. This is why we compare the earliest idolatry of the Bard (“Bardolatry”) that took place in the 18th century with the Cult of Jane today. The resulting May-December marriage has produced reactions — both measurable and anecdotal — beyond anything that we had anticipated. In truth, we’re gobsmacked.

Shakespeare’s celebrity has long attracted loyal and loving fans to the Folger. And yet, Folger docents and even security guards have found themselves engaging with large numbers of first-time visitors, many of them unabashed fans of Jane Austen. The shirt worn by actor Colin Firth in the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” in a scene not in the novel has emerged as a celebrity in its own right.

Docents soon became accustomed to directing breathless fans to it. One security guard even witnessed a small marital spat over wifely adoration of The Shirt. Giggles and chatter accompany the taking of innumerable selfies near The Shirt, breaking the reverent quiet of the Hall. Fans perform their own celebrations of Austen’s celebrity in the presence of their author’s 200-year history of fame by genuflecting, bowing, and performing somewhat serious or somewhat cheeky acts of worship.

Shakespeare’s fans are no less enthusiastic, although perhaps the extra 200 years has brought their performance (once equally giddy in the Georgian era) into a more staid and reverential state. Austen’s fans make the theatricality of fandom explicit — not to mention louder. When attendees of the Jane Austen Society of North America swarmed off the pink bus in front of the Folger one morning last week, many wore Regency costumes and bonnets and carried reticules. Jane’s fans are theatrical, playing the lead role in their author’s long-running performance of celebrity.

Did we learn new things from the extraordinary experience of curating “Will & Jane?” Is this the kind of work academic humanists should be doing? Is this how we should spend our scholarly time?

Our answer is an unequivocal yes, in spite of some institutional and cultural obstacles. In the English departments where we work, careers are made or destroyed through a narrow range of products. Only scholarly books and articles get us jobs, tenure, salary raises, and, ultimately, promotion to full professor. We all write largely in solitary silence, far from fans or even a reasonably sized public audience, and often far from each other. Collaboration between literary scholars is not unheard-of, but it always raises questions and eyebrows in tenure committees, where who did what and who should get credit for it is debated. We were only able to break this mold for what “counts” as academic production because we are already tenured, full professors — secure enough to ignore the occasional sneer from a colleague about “real” scholarship.

In our academic idiom, we set out to break the divide between town and gown. We wanted to create a show where having fun need not be hermetically sealed against intellectual rigor. Impertinent juxtapositions of 200-year-old items from the Folger collections alongside modern souvenirs should provoke more than just a smile. But smiling along with Austen and Shakespeare is a good thing for the humanities. Maybe professional academics like ourselves have been too isolated in our ivory towers (more like Formica, really, given academic salaries) to see how our own elitism rejects literature’s most important audience: the fans. Austen herself was a fan of Shakespeare, and she’s doing pretty well.

We encourage our academic colleagues to branch out beyond the siloed disciplines and narrow project descriptions that tend to divide us. Precisely because it is important that the humanities reassert their rightful place at the core of university life, we urge our colleagues in other departments to jump traditional fences and unite. Just as our exhibition mixes the old with the new and paintings with books and all manner of objects, the humanities must find new ways to aggressively expand our disciplinary limits — and our base of potential students. Perhaps we may even poach some STEM majors into our classes who otherwise would figure it’s “not for them.”

Janine Barchas is an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kristina Straub is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Read more:

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