The anniversary of the four-hundredth death day, if you will, of William Shakespeare has led to a wide range of events around the city commemorating one of the most celebrated British writers. From Complete Walks to revived productions, none were quite as fascinating as the British Library’s ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’ exhibition, which brought together over 200 artifacts associated with Shakespeare and his works across the ages.

Beginning with a “prologue” to introduce the Bard’s early life and history established a substantial narrative for the exhibition which split into ten rooms, or “acts”. Starting here created an understanding of where the man has risen from, and how his work has changed and developed over the course of over four hundred years. Artifacts placed at the beginning of the exhibition included the first folio, which, if it had not been assembled, would have meant the loss of some of Shakespeare’ most famous plays included Macbeth and The Tempest.

The first printed edition of Hamlet from 1603, actors’ parts, tickets, and a portrait of Richard Burbage, the actor Shakespeare wrote many of his leading roles for – notably Hamlet and King Lear – all made up the first tenth of the exhibition, providing a strong historical context which is sometimes pushed aside in favour of modern adaptations.

Moving through the rooms, a large sculpture of Ariel from The Tempest, made from paper and willow, dangles from the air, accompanied by the original score from the same play. As one walks through the rooms, and essentially through time, they not only begin to understand how Shakespeare and theatre has developed over time, but how far society has come and how much more rightful prominence minority groups have been given, particularly within the works of Shakespeare. For example, a room dedicated purely to the first women who performed Shakespeare when the ban of female actors was lifted in 1660 is a feast for the eyes and of the mind.  Vivien Leigh’s costume for her seductively powerful Lady Macbeth is on display, and information about Charlotte and Susan Cushman, sisters who played the roles of Romeo and Juliet opposite each other in order to uphold Victorian ideals of moral decency. An adjoining room showcases the first black actors to play Othello, and tells stories of how they overcame adversity to do so.

 

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Charlotte and Susan Cushman

The final portions of the exhibition enable us to take a glimpse into the future afterlife of Shakespeare’s plays: will we continue to be experimental like in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which included a delightful interactive apparatus in the exhibition), or will the wheel keep turning to make a full circle, such as performing in original conditions, as the Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night did. Go to the exhibition, take in all of the sights, and see what you’d prefer.

“Shakespeare in Ten Acts” is running at the British Library until 6th September, £5 for students.

This article was originally published in CUB Magazine.

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