The British Library marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with Shakespeare in Ten Acts, an exhibition that showcased treasures from their world class collections alongside a rich array of costumes, props, paintings and film clips. The atmospheric exhibition celebrated the diverse ways in which Shakespeare’s plays have been reinvented throughout the ages, while at the same time reminding us why his work is still relevant to us today. The exhibition was accompanied by an eclectic season of events, celebrating aspects of Shakespeare in performance including gender, politics and how his work is performed across the world.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts
(15 April – 6 September 2016)
The exhibition cast new light on how Shakespeare became the cultural icon he is today through ten key performances. It gave a vivid insight into Shakespeare’s character via a bawdy piece of Elizabethan gossip courtesy of the diary of a law student named John Manningham. In the entry dated 13 March 1602, which was on display for the first time, Manningham recounts a story about Shakespeare and his friend, the famous actor of his day Richard Burbage, in which Shakespeare steals his friend’s invitation to visit a female fan after Burbage’s performance in Richard III at the Globe, sending back the message ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard the 3.’
The unique manuscript was displayed alongside other stand-out items from the British Library’s collections including the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand, one of only six authentic Shakespeare signatures, and rare printed editions including the First Folio, as well as a range of film, paintings, photographs, costumes and props.
Also on display were two theatre playbills following the career of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello in 1825 and the focus of one of the ten key performances explored in the Library’s exhibition. Dated at either side of the abolition of slavery, the two playbills demonstrate the lengths to which he went to promote himself and challenge perceptions in an era when racist views were the norm.
Telling a story of struggles, set-backs and sea-changes, Shakespeare in Ten Acts explored the changing nature of Shakespeare’s reputation - from the ‘bardolatry’ typical of the Romantic era, to well-known Shakespeare detractors like Tolstoy - ultimately proving that his course never did run smooth.
British Library Education
Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance writers
A rich celebration of our cultural heritage, discovering literature is a free online learning resource that provides unprecedented access to the Library’s unique literary and historical collections. This phase of the project explores the works of Shakespeare and Renaissance writers in relation to the social, political and cultural context in which they were written, and examines the ways in which these plays and poems have been transformed and interpreted over the last four centuries. Through a diverse range of collection items, including rare printed books, unique contemporary manuscripts, annotated play-scripts, playbills, pamphlets, maps, photographs and paintings, the site gives users new insights into the images and ideas that shaped these writers' imaginations and that reflect their legacy. Users can also view over 100 articles by leading scholars and explore a range of teachers’ notes.
The British Library collaborated with the BBC to build a digital picture of the explosion in the performance of Shakespeare’s plays from the first performances to the present day as part of Shakespeare on Tour. The project brought together new academic research with stories of Shakespeare performances told through original playbills from the late 18th century onwards, held in the British Library’s collections.