News Release — September 9, 2015
"Shakespeare in Print and Performance" Guides Visitors through 400 Years of the Bard on Paper and on Stage
On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death in 1616, the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, presents the exhibition "Shakespeare in Print and Performance," commemorating the enduring legacy, longevity and relevance of the most frequently performed and most venerated English playwright. The exhibition draws on the Ransom Center's notable and unique collections of internationally recognized performance materials, set designs and printed books, many of which have never been exhibited.
The exhibition, which runs from Dec. 21, 2015, to May 29, 2016, seeks to show how much people can learn about Shakespeare's time, sources, texts and productions from early printed books and theatrical archives. Visitors will explore familiar plays and see visually stunning items from hundreds of years of performance history, including period costumes from Victorian productions and bold, modernist set designs from the early 20th century.
The exhibition brings together a wealth of Shakespeare material, beginning with the earliest printed references to the playwright. Early examples include Robert Greene's "Groats-worth of Wit" (1592), the first contemporary reference to Shakespeare in print, in which the up-and-coming writer is referred to as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers."
"It's fascinating that he is being documented prior to being a published author," says Gerald Cloud, Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts. "We think we know so little about Shakespeare, when in fact there's quite a lot that's known just from these rare printed books. With this exhibition we bring visitors closer to Shakespeare."
Shakespeare's career spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a time when collaboration was common. Visitors will be able to see historical and literary sources underlying some of Shakespeare's most famous works. Contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson are among those featured.
On view will be items from the Ransom Center's Pforzheimer collection, including the earliest mention of Shakespeare's name in print, source material that Shakespeare is known to have read, and rare books of which only a handful of copies are known. Also on display will be three copies of the first printing of Shakespeare's collected plays — the 1623 first folio — and a copy of the third folio (1664), which attempted to add seven new plays to Shakespeare's repertoire. Of note is an original untrimmed copy of "Richard II," "just as it was issued from the printing house in 1634, a remarkable and rare survival," says Cloud. "When you pick this up it's like traveling through time. Nobody has altered this book since it was created."
There is no official version of Shakespeare's work; the author left behind neither diaries nor manuscripts. To gain insight into his legacy, scholars rely on studying variations in the printed versions of his plays. The exhibition's textual and literary interpretations section takes visitors from the 17th century through the 20th century. Wall graphics and instructional guides accompany selections from "Hamlet" and "Othello" to help visitors get a feel for the progression of the printed play and changes over time. On view also will be the Hinman Collator, a machine used to find variations in printed works, with origins in World War II reconnaissance photography.
Shakespeare's plays have been staged more often than those of any other English playwright. "One of our goals in the performance section of this exhibition is to highlight the incredibly different ways directors, designers, playwrights and actors have interpreted the Bard's works in performance," says Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts. "I am particularly excited that, for the first time, visitors can see John Wilkes Booth's promptbook for his staging of 'Richard III,' and Rosalind Iden's gown for Beatrice in Donald Wolfit's touring production of 'Much Ado About Nothing.'"
Visitors will explore different approaches to historical accuracy and authenticity in Victorian productions of Shakespeare, and then see how early 20th-century set designers abandoned those meticulously detailed sets and revolutionized Shakespeare for a modern audience.
"Edward Gordon Craig's English edition of 'Hamlet,' published in 1930 by Cranach Press, is a beautiful example of how a performance of Shakespeare actually informed a printing of the play," says Chelsea Weathers, research associate for visual materials. Craig staged a famous production of "Hamlet" in Moscow in 1911-12; viewers will be able to see Craig's and Robert Edmond Jones' set designs, loaned by the McNay Museum, alongside similar woodcuts in the book. "The Cranach Press 'Hamlet' is widely considered to be one of the finest printed books of the 20th century; one of the Ransom Center's copies belonged to George Bernard Shaw and includes a note by Shaw that it is his favorite edition of 'Hamlet.'"
Shakespeare's plays have an enduring quality, versatility and ability to affect the human spirit and imagination that is unmatched by any other author in the Western world. The Ransom Center's unique exhibition will intrigue and educate both casual visitors and scholars.
High-resolution press images from the exhibition are available.