Unless you’ve been walking around with your head in a bag you’ll know that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. It’s hardly surprising then that, whether you’re a dedicated Bard-o-holic or just someone with a casual interest, there’s a plethora of exhibitions on offer to you this year that provide plenty of opportunity to brush up your Shakespeare. It’s perhaps rather fitting too that one of the rooms in the British Library’s own exhibition hones in on this growth of ‘Bardolatry’, including memorabilia from the very first celebration of him – the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 – that cemented his reputation as Britain’s foremost cultural icon.
There is very little known about the man himself; and the British Library wisely avoids building an exhibition around the mere handful of biographical facts, or the ill-conceived conspiracy theories; instead focusing on the strengths of the library’s own collection – his works. The concept is a simple one – ten rooms, each using a key performance that collectively chart the history of how Shakespeare’s canon has been performed, adapted and perceived over the last 400 years. It makes for a fascinating journey, not only because it charts how productions have changed over time but also because it marks the paralleling changes in society: the impact of globalisation, the advent of new technologies, and changing attitudes within both theatre and the wider world.
The exhibition’s main lure is part of the only surviving play script known to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting – a play called Sir Thomas More, originally written by Anthony Munday then revised by a number of playwrights including Shakespeare in c1603. It’s moodily lit at the top of the stairs in what the exhibition calls their Prologue. However, it’s the first two main rooms downstairs where visitors will linger longest. These cover the first production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the first production of The Tempest in an indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse. Both rooms are packed with interesting exhibits including the earliest printed version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from 1603 (commonly known as the ‘Bad’ Quarto) in which the best-known line in English Literature is rendered, ‘To be or not to be, ay there’s the point.’ There are also two of only six remaining Shakespeare signatures; a cannonball ingeniously used for creating The Tempest’s storm effects; and the skull presented to actress Sarah Bernhardt by novelist Victor Hugo, which Bernhardt used when she played Hamlet in 1899.
After this it’s down to more serious business. Two key rooms investigate changing attitudes within society and how this has been reflected in Shakespearian productions, the first of these based around the first appearance of a woman on the public stage, playing Desdemona in 1660, whilst the second centres around the first black actor (Ira Aldridge) to play Othello in Britain in 1825. There’s a fascinating prologue written specifically for the 1660 performance of Othello in which the actor announces that he’s been back stage and can vouch that their colleague playing Desdemona is indeed a real woman – proof perhaps of how shocking a woman performing on the stage was then considered. There are paintings, too, including one of the first celebrity actress Sarah Siddons playing Lady Macbeth in 1814 next to the more beguiling costume for Vivien Leigh whose portrayal was described by Kenneth Tynam as ‘more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda’. The exhibition also highlights how we have in many respects come full circle, from men playing women, to women playing men (Maxine Peake talks on video about her recent portrayal of Hamlet), culminating in costumes from the 2012 production of Twelfth Night and its return to original practices, including Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia.
The room regarding the portrayal of black characters and changing attitudes towards black actors includes not only an image of a ‘blacked up’ Laurence Olivier playing Othello, but also a letter written by him during the on-going struggle for racial diversity on the stage, whereby Olivier refuses to lend support to the campaign to bring black actor Paul Robeson to London to play the role, because he wanted the role for himself. The room includes another video, this time of black actor Hugh Quarshie talking about his initial reservations taking on the role and yet how they ultimately helped shape his portrayal.
From here the exhibition looks at how Shakespeare has been revised and reworked over the centuries, but also in terms of how it is performed, including a room based around Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which set the play in a white box with the actors as a circus troupe. The final two rooms bring us up to date and into the modern era of film, finishing with a projection of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet which incorporates footage of Richard Burton’s portrayal within their performance – proof perhaps that Shakespeare’s plays, four hundred years on, remain ripe for reinvention.
The exhibition, then, covers a lot of ground, but the themed rooms give it focus and whilst there are inevitably a lot of items in glass boxes there should also be enough visual stimuli to keep younger visitors engaged. The library also offers schools free workshops, there’s a diverse range of evening talks, and if these still leave you wanting more I’d recommend the British Library’s new Discovering Literature: Shakespeare portal that includes 300 images and a wealth of newly-commissioned articles on all things Bard-related.
It’s the exhibition though that is the star; and in a year when Shakespeare enthusiasts are spoilt for choice, this is a real crowd-pleaser. It is, to quote Hamlet, ‘A hit. A palpable hit!’
The Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition runs at the British Library until 6 September.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room. His second novel Devastation Road published last year and was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It will be out in paperback on 14 July.
- Vivien Leigh (as Titania) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Old Vic Theatre, 1937_photograph by J W Debenham_ courtesy of the Mander and Mitchenson collection at the University of Bristol and ARENApal. British Library
- The Bad Quarto of Hamlet 1603. Photograph: British Library
- First Folio, 1623. Photograph: Claire Kendall, British Library