A carousel of tragedy

We are used to thinking of productions of Shakespeare’s plays as creating new works of art that demonstrate the vitality of the centuries-old drama. But in the right hands, books can achieve the same effect. Emily Martin’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, published by Naughty Dog Press in 2012 and acquired by the Folger last year (ART Vol. e316), blends together Shakespeare’s play with our lives today and the paper presence of a book with the theatrical drama of the stage.

At first glance, Martin’s book looks just like a book, although looking at the spine suggests that there’s something unusual afoot.

front cover of Emily Martin's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
front cover of Emily Martin’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
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spine of Martin’s book

Opening the book up, we can see why its structure is unusual: it’s a carousel book that displays properly when the two boards meet together, with the pages fanning out in a circle to display their text and pop-ups.

interior view of Martin's Romeo and Juliet
interior view of Martin’s Romeo and Juliet

In this view, of what is in effect the first opening of the book, you can see on the left the first lines of the Chorus’s speech at the beginning of the play:

Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. (Prologue 1-8) ((I’ve quoted from the Folger edition here; Martin is using a different edition in her book.))

On the floor of the stage, we see Juliet’s key lines from the opening act:

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathèd enemy. (1.5.152-155)

But the book isn’t just interested in Shakespeare’s play, or in creating a book that replicates stage features.

the second "act" of Martin's Romeo and Juliet
the second “act” of Martin’s Romeo and Juliet

When you rotate to the next act, you again get a stage-like space and lines from the second act of the play on the stage floor, but this time the scene is set in Bosnia, with additional commentary from Martin below it:  “Since time began mankind has fought, tribe against tribe, race against race, class against class, ethnic group against ethnic group.” As she describes, she chose “to emphasize the timelessness of the play through repetition of the chorus and insertion of modern equivalents for Verona”—in addition to Verona and Bosnia, the book locates the tragedy in Israel, Rwanda, and America. ((You can read her statement on her website or on the Hamnet catalog record.))

Martin made her book in response to the 2013 Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition, where it was a Distinguished Winner. The theme of the competition, sponsored in part by the Bodleian Library, was Shakespeare, and the bindings are stunning. It’s wonderful to have one of the winners in the Folger’s collection, and to see the powerful possibilities of dynamically reimagining what books can do.