When English professor Paula Blank died in 2016, she left behind an incomplete manuscript. Monday, Nov. 5, following two years of work by her colleagues and friends to finish the book, Stanford University Press finally published “Shakesplish: How We Read Shakespeare’s Language.”
Not long after Blank’s death, English department professors found nearly completed files for “Shakesplish” on her hard drive. English professor Elizabeth Barnes then led the effort to complete Blank’s book.
“The book manuscript was practically complete at the time of Paula’s death,” Barnes said. “She had worked on it all summer of 2016. I knew she was proud of it and interested in the material and I didn’t want her beautiful work wasted. Fortunately, Stanford University Press agreed.”
Barnes knew Blank well, and felt it was important to help her publish her final work.
“Paula was my favorite colleague and my favorite friend,” Barnes said. “She was a subtle thinker, had a wry sense of humor and was kind and incredibly smart.”
English professor Erin Minear also worked with Barnes to complete their colleague’s book. Minear said that while a majority of it was already written, they had to add the finishing touches such as citations and footnotes.
“As far as preparing the manuscript for publication, most of the chapters were largely complete,” Minear said in an email. “The argument was always clear. Sometimes we had to tidy up the writing or turn phrases into complete sentences. Sometimes we added a paragraph or two to fill out a conclusion or create a transition. We also had to put in all the footnotes and check the references, which took the most time.”
Minear described Blank as a wonderful person and someone that she missed working with and knowing. She said Blank was passionate about her study of Shakespeare, and that they often had enjoyable conversations about the subject of the bard’s work. Minear said she hoped Blank’s book would reach a wide audience.
“I read this book, as I was helping to finish it, and I think it’s splendid,” Minear said in an email. “It’s really written for a non-specialist audience, though there is plenty for specialists to enjoy (and to learn!). I hope that it reaches a wide audience of non-scholars. Anyone at all interested in Shakespeare would enjoy it!”
“Shakesplish” examines the gap between Shakespeare’s Early Modern English and Modern American English. It details how this gap creates new unintended meanings for contemporary readings, and how that changes Shakespeare’s importance and legacy today.
The book also describes ways in which Shakespeare’s language and writings are still influential and relevant, identifying phrases and idioms some still may not realize come from his work.
English professor Erin Webster also took part in ensuring “Shakesplish” became a reality. Webster said she believed that Blank’s experiences in the classroom helped her to create the book.
“My sense is that her inspiration for the book came out of her teaching,” Webster said in an email. “She includes numerous anecdotal examples in the book itself of student reactions to Shakespeare’s writings, and of instances where her students have productively ‘misread’ a word or phrase. Rather than close these discussions down, Professor Blank thinks through their significance, much as I imagine her doing in her classroom.”
As one of the newer professors at the College, Webster said working on the “Shakesplish” project helped her create connections and friendships.
“Working on this book alongside Professor Barnes and Minear and with the support of others in the department has been a wonderful introduction into the W&M community,” Webster said in an email. “It has made me aware of how lucky I am to work with colleagues who respect each other’s scholarship and are willing to give their own time and energy to see it come to fruition.”
English department chair Suzanne Raitt knew Blank well and said she was immensely pleased that her book was able to be published.
“Paula worked here for well over 20 years and she was really funny, she was really charismatic, she was a true intellectual,” Raitt said in an email. “She could make you see things in a completely different way just in a couple of sentences. We really miss her.”
College President Katherine Rowe knew Blank well. Having both studied at Harvard University, the two were graduate students together who shared a passion for Shakespeare’s work. Rowe will host a celebration for the publishing of “Shakesplish” in January at the president’s house, which will be attended by close friends and family of Blank.