“Creating Shakespeare” – The Newberry

Photograph of New RoofNewberry Library Photograph by Catherine Gass 8-10-08

The Newberry’s Creating Shakespeare exhibit offers visitors the rare oppor­tunity to view the books, artifacts, posters, and drawings that visually constitute the man and the canon that we know as William Shakespeare. Arranged chronologically so that the visitor takes a virtual walk through time, surrounded by the material objects that signify first the man and his career in his own time, then his presence in the subsequent centuries, and finally in our own cultural present, the exhibit purports to explain how he is both “of an age and for all time,” whatever Jonson’s famous poetic rendering might claim.

The first gallery sets out to demonstrate Shakespeare’s situation within a broader theater industry, “of an age” in that he was one among many playwrights with whom he acted, collaborated, and competed. While no manuscript versions of Shakespeare’s promptbooks or plays are known to exist, the opening gallery features such items as a play manuscript by Ben Jonson and the diary of John Manningham, which gives a first-hand account of a performance of Twelfth Night as well as a (much-debated) account of Shakespeare’s sexual exploits. This first gallery imagines and presents the early modern London of which Shakespeare was but a part, emphasizing the world that created the man.

After this initial gallery, the visitor continues into a room entirely devoted to the history of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in print, performance, and illustration. First-edition quartos, playbills, comic books, and sculptures all pay tribute to the historical constitution of what is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play. The Cranach Press illus­trated Hamlet, in particular, is a true privilege to view. The collection is impressive in its size and scope, to be sure. And yet, it is somewhat jarring in its devotion to one piece of work in an exhibit that seeks to situate Shakespeare in historical and cultural context rather than as a brilliant and solitary author who exists in a kind of timeless continuum. For example, an 1830 playbill included in the Hamlet collection also advertises performances of Macbeth and Julius Caesar later in the same week, which the exhibit passes over in its description of the artifact. Similarly, a small display on Sir John Falstaff tells the visitor that he has the second most lines of any Shakespeare character and appears in three plays, and that his likeness has been used throughout history for both artistic and political purposes, and yet he is afforded a single half-wall while Hamlet has an entire room. Ira Aldridge, who made a career for himself as a black man on the London stage in the early nineteenth century, most famously in Othello, which the exhibit informs the visitor was “one of the most performed plays since the Restoration,” is paradoxically given a single wall panel, while David Garrick’s Romeo and Juliet, “performed more than any other play during the eighteenth century,” is similarly given a single panel.

The issue raised by a gallery entirely devoted to Hamlet is that Hamlet is the play which theatergoers and Newberry visitors alike can almost universally name when they think of Shakespeare. Hamlet, that work of psychological genius, is nearly synonymous with the notion of Shakespeare as solitary and eternal artist which the exhibit claims to eschew in its opening statement. It strikes one as a bit disingenuous to establish Shakespeare as “of an age,” a collaborator in a rich and thriving theater industry, in the first gallery, and then immediately reinforce the commonly held notion that he was exceptional in this second gallery. It is true that Hamlet has had a long and prosperous life on stage and page, but so have many, many more of Shakespeare’s works, as the Newberry itself concedes in other places throughout the exhibit. The dichotomy between intentional author and social collaborator has been a polemical one in academia for at least the last century or so, and it is therefore a bit disconcerting how the exhibit straddles the fence on this issue.

However, across the lobby, the exhibit returns the visitor to the spirit of Shakespeare’s work as continually reconstituted and re-appropriated, even as it was in his own time. The final gallery brings the visitor into the late nineteenth and twentieth century, emphasizing the all-important performance and visual aspects of Shakespeare’s art. The gallery is bursting with color, featuring theater posters, advertisements, and even the actual costume worn by Edwin Booth in his portrayal of Iago, fitted on a mannequin. There are editions of mid-twentieth century comic book versions of plays, aimed at a young male audience, musical scores for operas and adaptations of various works, paintings, a beautifully gilded illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s own recipe for stage blood. The emphasis is all on visualizing Shakespeare and the life of his works in the modern theater, and it succeeds in demonstrating the scale and value of the spectacle.

But does this modernized Shakespeare come at a cost? What is lost when we begin to commercialize the Bard? If the nineteenth- and twentieth-century attempts to re-appropriate Shakespeare seem to have one common goal, it is to make money using his image and his creations. Some of the artifacts the visitor encounters do so explicitly; a Budweiser advertisement from 1908 features Shakespeare’s portrait, and another ad tells us that the 1949 Ford is “a midsummer night’s dream!” But there is also the more implicit sense that the avant garde stagings, the illustrated books, and the operas and musical versions of his plays have the true purpose of boosting ticket sales and actors’ careers, rather than any real commitment to artistic expression. It is a fine line, but what is most apparent is the burgeoning of the “Shakespeare industrial complex,” the notion that our modern culture both constitutes and capitalizes on Shakespeare and his works even as it holds him up as an artistic genius.

But is there anything inherently wrong with this? As long as we acknowledge that we are appropriating Shakespeare for both artistic and commercial reasons, rather than hiding behind abstract or academic pretensions, perhaps this kind of cultural capitalization of the Bard is truer to his memory than anything else. It is, after all, how Shakespeare approached his own work. The Newberry’s exhibit thus takes the visitor full-circle, back to the emerging theater industry of sixteenth-century London. The creating Shakespeare, that is, the man who created the plays, in his coupling of artistic and economic goals, was not so different from the industry that is perpetually creating him. In this sense, the exhibit captures both the material remnants and the profit-driven, artistically inspired essence of the man and his works, four hundred years later.


Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.

“Creating Shakespeare” – The Newberry

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Recently, I sat down to talk with Jill Gage, Bibliographer for British Literature and History at the Newberry Library. She has also recently succeeded Paul Gehl as Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. Dr. Gage and I discussed “Creating Shakespeare,” an exhibition she is currently curating and which will be free and open to the public at the Newberry beginning on September 23.

Andrew S. Keener: To begin, could you tell me a little bit about your background in the world of librarianship? What brought you to the Newberry?

Jill Gage: I’ve never worked anywhere other than the Newberry Library. I started here as an intern while I was in library school, doing my MA in Library Science and my MA in English simultaneously, and when I finished, the Newberry created a job for me. In 2010, I went back to school to get my PhD at the University of London, specializing in eighteenth-century English literature. Now, I do all of the antiquarian acquisitions for the fields of British literature and history, and I’m the subject specialist as well, which is how I ended up being the curator of the Newberry’s Shakespeare exhibition.

AK: I think this leads us into the exhibit. We’re here in the midst of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and there are hundreds of events going on all over the city for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?

JG: We started working on the exhibit in 2012. I’m not by training a Shakespearean scholar, but I do know the Newberry’s collections, and this was an opportunity to think about what we have and what we might offer.

I started out by typing the word “Shakespeare” into our catalog, and it grew from there. We’ve decided to call the exhibit Creating Shakespeare because the story of Shakespeare’s survival has actually very little to do with Shakespeare himself, or at least that’s one way of thinking about it. We have the First Folio, without which he might have slipped into obscurity; but then, starting in the late seventeenth century, many others have shaped Shakespeare and created Shakespeare in ways that are new for each successive generation. That’s the really interesting story for me.

The hard thing about the exhibition is that there are endless ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Honestly, the Newberry’s strongest collection of Shakespeare materials is seventeenth-century materials, and I’d love to do an exhibit of just those items, but one of my jobs as a curator and librarian is to think broadly. I’ve tried to invite people who look at the exhibition to think, “I didn’t know anything like that existed,” or, “I didn’t know the Newberry had that.” This way, visitors who aren’t as interested in the quartos or the First Folio might be struck by nineteenth-century sheet music, newspapers, or a radio play.

AK: Can you tell us a few things about what sort of items will be in the exhibition? What can we look forward to? I’m aware that some of the items on display will be coming from places beyond the Newberry as well.

JG: Yes. We are borrowing from the British Library, the Folger Shake­speare Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard, Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as four private collectors.

The British Library is sending four manuscripts and the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, which is one of only two known copies. This book has been called a “bad quarto” because it’s so different from the later editions; it’s much shorter than the second quarto, many of the speeches are rearranged, and it has unique stage directions. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about what this “bad quarto” is, and whether it is actually “bad”—it could be an adaptation from the stage, or a memorial reconstruction by actors who were in the play. I think it’s really a perfect object to include, since it gives us a window into all the people who created Shakespeare and how Shakespeare has been mediated and created by other people from the beginning.

We’re also borrowing the John Manningham diary from the British Library. Manningham was a seventeenth-century law student who kept very gossipy notebooks, and he recorded seeing a production of Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple. It reminds him of The Comedy of Errors, and his favorite scene is when Malvolio reads Maria’s letter. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, we’re borrowing a lot of theatrical materials, including David Garrick’s promptbook for Hamlet and an Edmund Booth costume from the nineteenth century.

AK: Those seem like fantastic items. To take a step back: how, to your mind, will Creating Shakespeare fit into the broader landscape of events and performances around the city celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare?

JG: Shakespeare 400 Chicago is a wonderful, groundbreaking effort that Chicago Shakespeare Theater has coordinated with so many other cultural institutions, and the Newberry’s role is to help provide the historical background. We have a Chicago-specific section in the exhibit, beginning in the 1860s. And, in fact, that section includes the one thing I cannot tell you about, which is going to be the most blockbuster thing of all.

But Creating Shakespeare is a process that is ongoing; it’s still happening, and it’s going to be happening in the future. Our programming around the exhibit really fits in with celebrating the way our collections have been used by scholars and artists within the local community. We do have three scholars, James Shapiro, Peter Holland, and Coppélia Kahn, who will give traditional talks. They’ll all be great, but we really wanted to celebrate performance in Chicago, too. We don’t want to be seen as the ivory tower part of it; I think the programming is actually an integral part of the exhibition.

AK: Here’s a final question that sums up some of what we’ve been talking about. Simply put, what does Shakespeare mean to you, as a curator, researcher, and librarian?

JG: There’s something about Shakespeare that ties us all together, which I find quite poignant. Not that much that we share stretches from 1616 to 2016. Four hundred years of people have read or seen Shakespeare and somehow been inspired, whether that means cutting out all the sad parts, or making illustrations of Falstaff. I think that idea of inspiration, of creativity, is fascinating.


Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and lit-erature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read more…