Even a Shakespeare Exhibit Is Dramatic

Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

It’s hard to believe, but come April, 400 years will have passed since William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil. The University of Texas figured it was a good time to brush up its Shakespeare with a showcasing of its massive collection of all things Bard from both the writing and production perspectives.

The result? A generous serving of drama, both by and about the Bard. Yes, a room full of first folios, rare quartos and marked-up prompt books can seem a little intimidating. But look around and read the wall texts at “Shakespeare in Print and Performance,” which opens Dec. 21 at the Harry Ransom Center, and you’ll learn a lot about Shakespeare, who, as literary curator Gerald W. Cloud points out, didn’t leave a diary to tell us all about himself.

There are nuggets in this exhibit for anyone who enjoys a night at the theater, a rare printed volume, or a good costume or set design. Depending on what you like to sink your teeth into, here’s some fodder:

For trolls: Cloud has gathered early references to Shakespeare’s writing, and as you might expect, there’s snark. Robert Green’s Groats-worth of Wit (1592) calls Shakespeare “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.” Seriously, does this 28-year-old actor think he can write?

For the quote-droppers: Well, yes, the actor could and did write. A copy of Robert Allott’s England’s Parnassus (1600), a compilation of poetic quotations, includes 91 entries from Shakespeare. Of course, there are twice as many by Edmund Spenser, but 91 is pretty impressive for the then-36-year-old Shakespeare.

For map lovers: There’s a 1575 map of London showing the area where the Globe Theatre would eventually be. At the time, Londoners went to theaters to watch bear-baiting—the tormenting of a bear by tying it up and unleashing dogs to see which animal would injure or kill the other—certainly a far lesser entertainment than a Shakespeare play, even Henry IV, Part 2.

For investigative reporters: Get to the bottom of who Shakespeare’s sources were. This exhibit is packed with his source material, including a 1594 book called The True Tragedie of Richard the Third (author unknown), Spenser’s sonnets and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, from which the plots of King Lear and Macbeth (sorry; “The Scottish Play” for those of you performing it this evening) emerged. There actually was a King Mac Bethad of Scotland. The show’s Macbeth exhibits should also interest fans of Netflix’s House of Cards, which is about as Macbethian as you can get.

For the wicked: A book on demonology by King James I, who took the throne during Shakespeare’s theater career, takes issue with Reginald Scott’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which held that witches shouldn’t be persecuted because, well, there’s no such thing as witches. Shakespeare drew on both books, and his delving into the life of witches is in some circles believed to be the source of the Macbeth (shhhh) curse.

For Politifact: The Ransom has a 1664 third folio that added seven plays to Shakespeare’s works. Trouble is, he only wrote one of them, Pericles.

For people who can’t wait to write their names on their things: A rare 1634 unbound, untrimmed (the pages are big and ragged-edged), and, thus, less expensive copy of Richard II includes the inscription, “Frances Wolfreston, her book.” Wolfreston would eventually be known as an important 17th-century collector.

For editors and people who make mistakes (groups that are not mutually exclusive): The exhibit compares quarto and first folio versions of Shakespeare that differ. Because Shakespeare left no actual manuscripts, nobody knows what he really wrote. But in one case, the first folio of Othello contains fewer lines than the first published version of the work in a quarto. Were they edited out, accidentally dropped, or some of both? Nobody’s sure.

For the star-struck: The production part of the exhibit starts with a large photo of David Garrick as Hamlet from the collection of Harry Houdini, which the Ransom owns. Voila! We learn that Houdini was a theater historian as well as an illusionist. There’s also an exhibit on the famous Sarah Bernhardt, whose many Shakespearian roles included Hamlet, and Charlotte Cushman (whose partner, by the way, was the sculptor Emma Stebbins), whose Shakespearean roles, along with Lady Macbeth, included more than 40 male parts, including Hamlet and Romeo.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Remember John Wilkes Booth? Yes, he’s here, represented with his prompt book from Richard III, in which his performance turned the king into a sympathetic, though flawed, character.

For those who hate actors: You’re not alone. The exhibit examines Edward Gordon Craig, a talented actor, production designer and director, who, among other things, directed Constantin Stanislavski’s 1911 production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theater. “He hated actors,” says Ransom theater curator Eric Colleary. “His vision for a production could never be realized by actors. They’d always find a way to muck it up.” So, Craig got out of the directing business and worked on creating a beautiful printed edition of Hamlet that includes his own woodcut prints surrounded by the text and source notes. It’s downright gorgeous.

For actors who feel put-upon: Consider Donald Wolfit, one of the last great actor-theater managers. During World War II, Wolfit’s repertory company, as a poster shows, might in one week—one week—perform Hamlet, Volpone, Merchant of Venice, and Macbeth, all amid air raid sirens. Now, that’s put-upon. But the continuation of Shakespeare during these tough times was considered a point of pride in London.

For fashionistas: The Ransom’s collection of B.J. Simmons’s costume designs is on parade here, with drawings and photos of designs such as the costume that Orson Welles wore as Othello in the ’50s. There’s also an actual costume, a heavy red dress worn by one of Wolfit’s wives, Rosalind Iden, in a 1945 production of Much Ado About Nothing that clearly shows a panel inserted in the back to enlarge it. Colleary says the dress was probably used many times over a period of 20 years. “You can read a costume like you can read a book,” Colleary says, noting that you can tell not only what size an actress was but what sort of movement was expected from her onstage.

For set-design aficionados: Take a look at Norman Bel Geddes’s scenic designs for an epic King Lear that, although never staged, featured dramatic lighting and minimal sets, as well as a Max Reinhardt stage extension at the Hollywood Bowl for a 1934 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that essentially added a garden to the stage. Reinhardt’s production eventually became a movie, and both featured Mickey Rooney as Puck.

Against this exhaustive backdrop, we find Shakespeare performed today more than ever around the world, even though it’s been 400 years since his too, too solid flesh melted. “Shakespeare in Print and Performance” runs through May 29 at the Harry Ransom Center at 300 W. 21st St. on the University of Texas campus in Austin. It’s free.