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To Print, Perchance to Dream

“To me,” says entrepreneur Crispin Clarke ’98, “Shakespeare represents the undying fire of the human spirit.”

Burning since childhood with the Bard’s flame, Clarke was speechless when his grandparents—who lived near Stratford-upon-Avon—gifted him a broken-spined Victorian-era Shakespeare collection.

Inspired by the volume’s sumptuous chromolithography—each illustration took 19th-century printers months to produce—he founded a new company, Shakesprints, to share this art.

“This labor of love,” he says, “honors humanity’s collective desire to celebrate and learn from Shakespeare, who grows ever wiser.”

What does Shakespeare mean to you?

Shakespeare is part of what I consider my long, deep, good cultural history. I have many happy childhood memories from Lechlade-on-Thames in England with my family where my grandparents lived in a village 40 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) and often we went there to the Royal Shakespeare Company theaters. Nowadays, I meet people anywhere and smile when Shakespeare comes up.

To me, he represents the highest arch of the human spirit in the heroic achievement of one individual reaching such prolific profound genius and producing these brilliant writings that are still so alive after almost 450 years. I honor our collective interest, valiantly led by the dramatic artists among us, to celebrate and learn from his works ever since—a marvelous undying fire.

Shakespeare grants great insight on the power of love as well as the love of power. Complexity of human circumstances and motivations. Variety and subtlety of life. Respect for the perspectives’ of others. The equality of men and women. The perplexing question of honor.  The inner lives of individuals, whether they are political leaders or common citizens. I admire him as the person who took on the incredibly challenging project to chronicle the history of England’s hundred years of destructive civil war and then, remarkably, having the wherewithal to also capture world-changing events and characters in the ancient histories of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He also wrote hilarious comedies, profound tragedies, and amazing sonnets and narrative poems, too. The mystery surrounding his personal story only adds to the allure.

Ever since embarking on the Shakesprints business, I have committed myself to become a real Shakespeare scholar. My last couple of years have been much about enriching my academic foundation by reading every biography, listening to every audiobook, watching every movie and TV show on Shakespeare—I highly recommend BBC’s The Hollow Crown—as well as taking in as many live performances that I can. This has all been a complete joy.


What connections do you see between Shakespeare and Swarthmore?

Drawing on what I studied as a Swat sociology/anthropology postmodernism major, I appreciate how Shakespeare shone light on what it was like to be “the other”: a trapped daughter with Juliet, a persecuted Jew with Shylock, a black Moor with Othello, a raped woman with Lucrece. We face battlefield brutality and the pain of a nameless father who killed his son and a son who killed his father. Then there’s irreverent Falstaff with his buddies in the tavern. Hidden fairies in the forest and spirits on magic isles.

Shakespeare addressed taboos like the personal lives of kings, women disobeying men, children defying their parents, switching gender roles, and erotic sexuality. He was a smart rebel—there’s a certain similar charm I feel with many of my alumni kin. Reading Joyce, Proust, and Woolf with Professor Philip Weinstein at Swarthmore, I learned to appreciate the beauty of language itself, honey on the tongue, and regarding this, Shakespeare for me remains the most tantalizing.


What does Shakesprints mean to you?

Shakesprints is a labor of love to celebrate Shakespeare, which I dedicate to my dear grandparents, Richard and Nora Clarke, who gave me the old Complete Works which began the journey.

I was not intending on starting a Shakespeare printed products company; instead, my purpose was to give the old book a new spine which it was missing from the point my grandfather bought it in Wales in the 1970s. I fell in love with its illustrations and wanted to admire and share them more easily. I had the idea to remove and frame them while making copies to rebind back into the fixed book.

After seeing how these old chromolithograph illustrations—still in perfect condition and very bright colors—looked as 3,000 dpi digital images did I get the notion of starting a Shakespeare printing business.


What’s your vision for the company?

Shakesprints are made for serious and curious Shakespeare fans to enjoy; they’re made to win over those who are not currently turned on by Shakespeare, too. We are wholeselling to independent bookstores, but principally focused on Shakespeare gift shops at festivals and theaters all over the country and world while also building our own online retail store and placements in gift catalogues. We will print Shakesprints on any applicable material—paper products are just the beginning.


How does this new venture fit into your post-Swarthmore journey?

I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since graduating from Swarthmore. Like everything else that I have done, Shakesprints is unique, meaningful, scalable, and something I’m really passionate about. All the art involved is a nice right-brain workout. I like that I can do it part-time, anywhere, and it’s easy to manage.


How can readers find your products?

Visit our website and find us all over social media! We’re at the world-famous Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., too. While you’re in D.C., visit Old Georgetown and Just Paper & Tea, the premier stationery store in the neighborhood for the past 30 years and you’ll be able to get our fine art prints there as well as cards and boxed sets.

In California, find us all over the North San Francisco Bay Area at Copperfield’s Books in eight locations. You’d be more than welcome to join us as we co-produce a Shakespeare costume party and lecture at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma on May 18. You can also find Shakesprints at the Tudor Guild Gift Shop in Ashland, Ore., or when you go to a play or two at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.


What’s your favorite of the Shakespearean illustrations?

Each original illustration is a rare chromolithographs that took months to create via a 19th-century printing technique that quickly went obsolete due to its intensity, but posterity certainly is a beneficiary, considering how well they hold up over time.

The color ones are magnificent and capture such timeless moments in the plays. Romeo and Juliet look so grand and defiant. The two gentlemen of Verona have such dynamism. The hidden theater masks in the curtains of Merchant of Venice are so cool. Ophelia’s spiritual strength through her suffering.

A note about Ophelia: Her plate, covered by a protective sheet, was overlooked during the book restoration. I discovered it three years later, last August, when Shakesprints was first gearing up. The addition of this image to our portfolio felt like a gift from the gods so I’ll say Ophelia is my favorite.

Of the black and white illustrations, Hamlet is so awesome and I love the line of six female characters, but my favorite is Timon of Athens and the extraordinary scene his page depicts.


What’s your favorite Shakespearean quote?

I have three.

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity for a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath
In pain, to tell my story.
Hamlet, 5.2 (261-265)

This humble request, based at the end on simple friendship, from Hamlet in his dying breaths to Horatio, just feels so dignified and real.

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
Romeo & Juliet, Juliet, 2.2 (133–135)

Testimony of such stirring kindness for another person. Such hope and trust in the power of love.

“And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering over my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off
I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time, when men think least I will.”
Prince Hal, Henry IV, Part 1, 1.2 (80–85)

I’ve always liked comeback stories, proving one’s worth and success through many doubts and obstacles, which seems to be a pattern in my life.


Anything else?

Shakespeare’s legacy was good in the past and remains so for present and future generations. I believe art will save the world and Shakespeare’s art can help humanity get through these confusing times in which we’re living now. In the world today, when controversy unfortunately abounds, Shakespeare is uplifting and one of the few things we can count on that almost everybody around the globe knows and respects.

Please check out my overview of Shakespeare here. I’m attempting to address the dearth of comprehensive summaries. I love Bill Bryson’s book that addresses that on biography level but it’s still 160 pages. I’d be delighted for my summary to be critiqued by the many Shakespeare experts within the Swarthmore community.