On a recent Wednesday morning, a handful of 10th grade English students from Somerset Academy donned 3-D glasses and stepped into Elizabethan London.
Their tour guide warned them to watch out for rats carrying plague.
“This is so cool,” the students murmured as they stood outside the Globe Theater—a virtual rendering of it, anyway.
Welcome to the Globe Theater Experience at Florida International University’s Integrated Computer Augmented Virtual Environment (I-CAVE). This field trip within a field trip is part of a month-long public celebration of the First Folio on display at FIU.
“Shakespeare was a creator of his own virtual realities. Theater is a great immersive art form,” said Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has loaned a rare, 1623 edition of William Shakespeare’s collected plays to FIU.
The traveling exhibit, First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, is going to all 50 states and Puerto Rico. But this is the first stop that features a time-traveling virtual reality experience.
The I-CAVE tour includes a virtual performance of the opening monologue from Henry V. “Essentially it's about using your imagination,” said David Frisch, the English graduate student who created the tour as part of his masters’ thesis. “He's like, ‘you know the stage is bare—imagine, see the fields of France. See two monarchs.’”
Frisch worked with architecture and computer science students to digitally recreate Shakespeare’s London. They populated the streets with two-dimensional period paintings of Englishmen by Hans Holbein and Pieter Bruegel.
In addition to the Globe Theater Experience, there are film screenings and performances all month long. The Betsy Hotel on South Beach will host a symposium on Shakespeare and his Spanish contemporary, Cervantes.
And, of course, there’s the First Folio itself.
On the morning the Somerset students visited the exhibit, they first gathered in a courtyard outside the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum.
James Sutton, chair of FIU’s English department, quizzed them on their familiarity with the Bard:
“How many of you have read Romeo and Juliet?”
About half the hands in the crowd shot up.
“Two star-crossed lovers!” shouted 16-year-old Kammrin Dawson, who said the play resonated with him because he once had a secret girlfriend his mom didn’t like.
“Shakespeare, he’s a legend. And just to see his work firsthand is just amazing,” said Dawson.
And with that, Dawson and his classmates were ushered into the museum.
They plopped their backpacks behind the front desk, climbed the stairs, and at the prompting of three docents—English teachers from Miami Dade County Public Schools who trained to do this last fall—sorted themselves into side-by-side lines.
Then there it was, the main action: The book that carried 18 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays into our world. If it weren’t for this posthumous publication, scholars suspect plays like Macbeth and Julius Caesar might have been lost.
But instead, on this day, the Folio was laid open to the Tragedy of Hamlet. The students were silent as they approached. Just as silently, they pulled cell phones from back pockets and snapped pictures.
Afterwards, they milled around the room, reading famous quotes projected onto a wall behind the open book.
“‘If music be the food of love, play on,’” sophomore Guillermo Toro read out loud. “That’s pretty good.”
Toro looked a little star-struck.
“These are actually really amazing quotes that I’ve never seen before. It makes me want to look into all these literatures,” he said.
And that’s just what English professor Sutton wanted to hear.
“When I'm looking at these 10th graders that we have here, knowing that they'll be ours in a few years, I'm so excited that they're having this experience,” said Sutton, who led the efforts to get the First Folio to FIU.
Sutton has seen his Caribbean students in particular discover parallels to their own experiences in Shakespeare’s work.
Take for example, The Tempest—one of the plays saved by the Folio.
“We don't know that Prospero’s island was a Caribbean island; we don't know where it was. But the play, especially in this particular context, gives all of the problematics, all of the power mongering of the colonizing—and the loss of power, the loss of language of the colonized,” said Sutton. “They get it.”
“It was this vibrant culture of Miami that helped us see that this would be a really great place for the book,” said Witmore of the Folger.
Before leaving the First Folio exhibit, each of the students was handed a slip of paper with a famous Shakespearean line on it.
One by one, the teenagers read:
If you believe that the game is up and that the truth will out, even if it involves your own flesh and blood…
If you wish I was dead as a doornail…
The more fool you for it is foregone conclusion that you are, as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare.
What: First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare
When: Folio on display through Feb 28, I-CAVE tours available through Feb 29
Where: Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum and other locations across Florida International University, 10975 SW 17th St.
Full list of events: folio.fiu.edu/events.html