Skip to Main Content
Harry Ransom Center homepage

Shakespeare in Print and Performance

December 21, 2015 – May 29, 2016

No writer is more central to the English literary tradition than William Shakespeare. For centuries, his works have intrigued and inspired generations of readers, audiences, and scholars. Four hundred years after his death, the Harry Ransom Center commemorates Shakespeare's legacy by presenting a selection of rare and unique materials relating to his plays. These materials, primarily drawn from the Ransom Center's collections, demonstrate how much we can learn about his historical context, sources, texts, and productions of the plays from early printed books and theatrical archives.


Context and Contemporaries

Shakespeare's career spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I (represented here by an original letter) and James I. Playwrights worked in an intensely competitive environment, yet dramatic collaboration was commonplace. Some of Shakespeare's featured contemporaries include Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. On view are historical and literary sources underlying some of Shakespeare's most famous works, as well as the first mention of Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" in Robert Greene's Groats- Worth of Wit (1592).

"True Originall Copies"

Early editions of Shakespeare's work, including the Ransom Center's three copies of the First Folio and early quarto copies of the plays, reveal a great deal about the printing, distribution, and readership of his works. This section explores differences between various editions of Shakespeare's work, highlights his "lost" play The Double Falsehood, and provides insights into textual scholarship. The Hinman Collator, a machine used by scholars to compare different copies of the same work in order to determine textual variants, is on display.


Shakespeare's plays have been staged more often than those of any other English playwright. This section highlights particular ways in which producers, directors, artists, actors, designers, and playwrights have created diverse and unique interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

Modernist Set Designs

In the early twentieth century, set designers abandoned the meticulously detailed sets typical to nineteenth-century theatrical productions. Designers such as Edward Gordon Craig, Norman Bel Geddes, and Robert Edmond Jones set Shakespeare's plays on minimally furnished stages with bold colors and dramatic lighting in an effort to convey expressiveness and mood. Original set designs and other visual materials illustrate how these artists revolutionized Shakespeare for a modern audience.

Authentic Costumes

In Victorian England, theater managers went to great lengths to create "historically accurate" settings for Shakespeare, hiring costumers like the London firm of B. J. Simmons, which specialized in period attire. In this section, delve into Simmons's archive to explore different approaches to historical accuracy and authenticity in Shakespeare and see how costumes bring his characters to life. Included are costume designs and photographs for four stagings of Othello produced between 1902 and 1951.

Shakespeare for All Audiences

Thanks to the prevalence of touring, many theatergoers in late nineteenth and twentieth-century provincial England experienced Shakespeare not in the capital but in their home towns, entertained by professional companies from London such as that of actor-manager Donald Wolfit. Photographs and costume and set designs from Wolfit's papers are on view. Of special note is a gown used by Wolfit's wife and leading lady Rosalind Iden. The gown shows signs of extensive wear and repair, reflecting the constant use and hectic schedule of Wolfit's touring company.