“Creating Shakespeare” – The Newberry

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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.

Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet

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Joffrey Ballet’s 2016 production of Prokofiev’s and Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet opens upon a scene of stark contrasts, not just the obvious black and white of the costume and set design or the unexpected stillness of the dancers upon the stage as old newsreels play in the background, but what these visual contrasts represent—the age-old conflict between the Capulets and Montagues. These two families must share a stage world where everything is black and white, and here we are no longer talking about visuals. Family, politics, worldview separate the two groups, and group choreography scenes at the beginning of acts 1 and 2 make this clear. Costuming clearly articulates the families, and the choreography itself is a striking mixture of dance and stage combat, movements somehow both graceful and stark that express the tension and violence beneath the surface. The climactic street fight between Mercutio (Derrick Agnoletti) and Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili) in particular has such a sense of both regimented movements and chaos that the audience is left stunned when it is over, even those who knew the deaths were coming. This is a world and a stage where both nothing and everything is shocking, where black and white and harsh reds combine with militaristic music and sometimes jerky dance steps to convey a sense of animosity that is barely, and sometimes not, concealed.

In the midst of this world, Romeo and Juliet: star-cross’d lovers clearly demarcated by their pale blue dress and peaceful but passionate movements. The performance of Amanda Assucena in particular as Juliet on the night of October 14 was masterful, both in Assucena’s execution of notated choreography but more importantly in her embodiment of the struggling spirit and nearly inexpressible grief of the heroine as she mourns not just for her lover but her family and her entire world. It is a role needing to be both danced and acted, and Assucena excelled at both. Our Juliet and her Romeo, Alberto Velazquez, drew tears and a standing ovation from the audience on this particular night. The tragedy of the plot and the triumph of the performance were quite clearly theirs.

The lovers and their families and friends are set, in Pastor’s version, in a twentieth-century Italy; moving between the acts, the action moves forward in time, drawing a thread between the Fascism of Mussolini’s 1930s, the violence of the Red Brigade 1960s, and the right-wing political parties of contemporary Italy. The political implications of the production are clear, with the Capulets as the dominant, autocratic Fascists and then the right-wing traditionalists, and the Montagues as the leftist opposition. The conflict is far larger than the two families, the forces with which the two lovers must contend almost insurmountable in scope. While an interesting interpretation that brings relevance for the audience into the performance, such a depiction does have its drawbacks. In Shakespeare’s play, the Capulets and Montagues get no more description than their brief introduction in the Prologue as “two households, both alike in dignity” (line 1, emphasis mine) who are consumed in an “ancient grudge” (line 3) of which no one seems to remember the origins. Shakespeare gives us two nearly identical foes. The audience sides with no one but the lovers, who seem caught up in a pointless struggle that ends easily enough at the end of the play, when the two families reconcile over their shared tragedy. In the Joffrey’s performance, the all-black, military-style costumes and borderline goose-stepping of the Capulets leave no room for ambiguity: the audience is clearly meant to side with the Montagues in this ongoing battle. Their vibrantly colored costumes in the second half and the lovable antics of Mercutio underscore this. Such an interpretation tends to remove Romeo from danger and shift the audience’s sympathies wholly onto Juliet, who might be happy living with her Romeo and his family if only she could escape her own. While the political dimension may add depth and emotion for a modern audience, it is not very true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s text, where both lovers are equally victims and where their deaths, though tragic, seem not to have been in vain when their fathers make peace.

But the presence of the modern audience is key, as the audience is to any performing art. While a Shakespearean scholar may take slight issue with the recasting of the Montagues and Capulets as good and evil, the significance of Pastor’s version for our contemporary world is clear. Italian politics are not the only ones under scrutiny: the timelessness of the performance is matched only by its timeliness, in an American election cycle where we seem as starkly divided as the two families. The Joffrey’s performance highlights not just the never-ending cycle of violence and war between two Italian families, but the perpetuation of conflict everywhere in our world. It is telling that the performance ends without the reconciliation scene that Shakespeare’s text provides; both families simply march away from each other bearing their dead, heedless of the other’s pain, in a display reminiscent of two hardened politicians who refuse to shake hands. The imagery and performances offered in the Joffrey’s Romeo & Juliet may depart from the text, but they are yet anoth­er example of how fully the stage is capable of bringing the text to life.


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.

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, after having quickly tricked Cesario into straying from Orsino’s prepared speeches of courtship, the Countess Olivia triumphantly declares that the poor Viola-in-disguise is “Now out of your text” (1.5.204). This causes Cesario to abandon the “text” completely, so that Olivia receives passionate words directly from the heart, perhaps for the first time, and ultimately falls in love with this unwitting messenger.

Similarly, it was the extra-textual, intuitive nature of Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: Twelfth Night that drew love from the audience at Welles Park. Before the show began, Will Mobley, the show’s Feste, addressed an audience that professed to be about half newcomers to Shakespeare’s works and advised them to use context to guide their experience when the text itself became too impenetrable. Flanked by the grand Welles Gazebo on one side and a group of elderly men playing bocce on the other, and preceded by a riveting presentation by the Old Town School of Folk Music that had many playgoers dancing in their seats, CST gave a performance that enabled the audience to use this context to enjoy a show that was true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s words while updating and packaging them for a modern, casual setting.

Presented with a play that often rings with dark notes even as it is undoubtedly a comedy, director Kirsten Kelly and the performers were able to remove some of this ambiguity for an audience that included dogs, babies, and balloons, as well as attentive listeners. While some might say this detracts from the play’s overall complexity and Shakespeare’s artistic achievement, the beauty of theater is that it is adaptable to the context outside it in the same way that it is able to use onstage context to draw listeners in. For this particular show, the decision to turn Orsino’s and Olivia’s melancholy into melodrama was the right one. For example, Orsino made his entrance carrying an enormous portrait of Olivia done in lurid colors, which he then proceeded to dance with and eventually kiss rather emphatically, laying on it a large, wet smack that was audible over the “food of love” coming from Feste’s piano. We were unquestionably in a comedy from the start.

The transformation of Feste, the “wise fool” originally created for the more satirical and serious clown Robert Armin, into a lively jester-turned-musician kept much of the more confusing dialogue at bay and consistently kept the energy of the show high. Feste often speaks in riddles that take us a moment to puzzle out. Some of these moments were kept, such as his logical proof that Olivia is really the fool and not he (1.5.61), but many of them were cut, rightfully I think, as it kept the audience’s attention moving in this abridged, outdoor production. They had also composed an upbeat musical score for many of Feste’s songs, particularly the finale known most often as “The Wind and the Rain,” and incorporated this music throughout the show. Such decisions made for a cohesive, pleasant performance for a Sunday afternoon in the park.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways in which the director and cast upheld the joyful arc of the show while making use of the context of performance was the overall treatment of Malvolio. This is often one of those dark notes already mentioned. While he is never exactly likable, in other renditions I have seen and in the text itself the other characters’ trickery and humiliation of Malvolio can easily come across as cruel; the humor goes one step too far. This negativity is underscored by his final line, in which he vows to “be revenged on the whole pack of [them]” (5.1.365). The Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks show left none of this lingering doubt amidst our happily ever after, and this was achieved largely by the actors’ full engagement with the audience and the brilliant characterization of the long-suffering, absurdly pedantic, and somehow endearing Malvolio by Jonathan Weir.

In Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, Robert Weimann outlines the difference between what he terms the locus and platea. The
locus is the upper, more focalized part of the stage where action is more separated from the audience, while the platea is the lower part, sometimes even spilling into the seats, where the action is more connected to the spectators and context of playing. Rather than place Malvolio, the focus of our ridicule, on the more separated locus of the stage, nearly all of his actions were given on the platea, either at the very front of the stage or on the ramp and grass in front of it. From the way he addressed the reading of “Olivia’s” love letter directly to the audience, to his swiping of a snack from a playgoer in the front row, to his retreating after his declaration of revenge not backstage and out of sight but fairly deeply into the actual audience, Malvolio was clearly someone we laughed with, not at; an engaging character with his own kind of humor, who was reconciled back into the cast at the end and was never alienated from the silliness of the other characters or the casualness of the setting.

CST went quite far “out of their text” for this Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks performance, abridging many scenes and even translating whole speeches into Spanish, but the results were truly gratifying. By balancing their commitment to Shakespeare with their duty to their audience, Kelly and her cast and crew produced a show that sent both first-time viewers and seasoned veterans away laughing.


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.