This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The British Library has honoured his contribution to English literature and the stage in a celebratory exhibition that runs until September 6th. British Library curators, Zoë Wilcox, Tanya Kirk and Greg Buzwell, have crafted an impressive exhibit that covers Shakespeare’s importance in ten acts. From the first ground-breaking performance of Hamlet in 1600, to the the 1796 scandal of the Vortigern hoax, to the modern rendition of Twelfth Night, the exhibit spans four hundred years in the evolution of theatre, and the significant changes his plays inspired.
Shakespeare, called the ‘upstart crow’ by contemporary dramatist Robert Greene (1558-1592), acted and wrote thirty-eight plays during his lifetime. He was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon 1564, but his writing career didn’t take off until his late twenties.
In addition to being an English literary giant, Shakespeare has been credited with making theatre respectable. Prior to Shakespeare’s time, theatre was considered a bawdy, and disreputable pastime. Shakespeare’s skill caught the eye of the nobility, and eventually Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), casting theatre-going in a new light. While theatre retained elements of its past salaciousness, it was elevated to an art and brought prominence and career opportunities to fledgling actors.
Each area of the exhibit brings Shakespeare’s world and legacy to life. The collection houses an incredible number of books, manuscripts, plays, and articles of clothing. There are over 200 unique items on display, including playhouse box office receipts, theatre property deeds, mortgage deeds, scripts and letters.
In addition to these rare items, the exhibit examines Shakespeare’s influence in a section of works translated into different languages. From Mongolian to Polish, it demonstrated that Shakespeare’s popularity and reach was truly global. It also looks at adaptations of his stories, such as Romeo and Juliet’s modern counterpart, West Side Story.
The exhibit touches on Shakespeare’s impact on gender and race in theatre culture. On December 8, 1660, a young Margaret Hughes (1630-1719) took the stage in the role of Desdemona in Othello. She was the first ever professional female actor to take the stage. Prior to this, women’s roles were played by men, and they were banned from performing because it was considered an inappropriate place for a woman. From this pivotal moment in history, the exhibit traces the rise of actresses throughout seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Another fascinating piece to Shakespeare in Ten Acts was the focus on Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) and Paul Robeson (1898-1976). In 1825, American-born Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello. He moved to England and had a long career on stage, but he was still viewed as a curiosity and not paid as much as his fellow white actors. Aldridge travelled all over the world and performed Shakespeare’s plays in places such as Russia and Germany. The exhibit showcases, among many items, one of Aldridge’s original German playbills. Another featured African-American actor, was Paul Robeson. He was the second black actor to play the role of Othello after Aldridge. He also moved to London to launch an acting career on stage and was immensely popular and politically motivated to give a voice to other black actors. His contribution to theatre is immense.
Difficult as it was to choose, there are several stand out pieces that should not be missed. The sole surviving script written in Shakespeare’s hand from the ‘Booke of Sir Thomas Moore’. The first folio and the earliest printed edition of Hamlet (1603). A human skull inscribed with poetry given by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) to French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) on display in the Hamlet section of the exhibit. Bernhardt used this skull in her famous performance as Hamlet in 1899. Also a must-see, Vivian Leigh’s (1913-1967) stunning gown from her 1955 performance as Lady Macbeth.
The exhibit does an excellent job of meshing interactive features from film snippets, to listening stations, to Shakespeare on film. One small, but nice addition, is a tablet where you can listen to different recordings of actors giving Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, To Be or not To Be, over the course of the past one hundred years. Kenneth Branagh (1988), David Tennant (2013), Samuel West (2002), Daniel Day Lewis (1989), Simon Russel Beale (2000), Lawrence Olivier (1949), and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1906) to name but a few, are featured here.
Coming off the success of last year’s tremendous Magna Carta exhibit, the British Library has outdone itself again and produced another historical masterpiece. Not only is this a foray into Shakespeare’s life and times, but a show that encourages visitors to think about Shakespeare’s contribution and influence to theatre history and global appeal over the past four hundred years. It’s a must-see, spectacular exhibit for anyone visiting London before September 6th.
For more information, please visit: Shakespeare in Ten Acts
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