Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library
2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the great playwright who gave so much to the English language and its literature. In honour of this important milestone, the British Library is hosting an extensive exhibition examining Shakespeare, his famous plays and their complex legacy from his lifetime to the present day.
The exhibition contains some real treasures from the British Library archives and external collections. Highlights include two manuscript pages of a little-known play about Sir Thomas More, written collaboratively by Shakespeare and two other playwrights. Sections of the script feature the only authenticated examples of Shakespeare’s own handwriting.
To rationalise the vast body of reception and adaptation of Shakespeare over the past 400 years, the British Library has chosen to look at historical interpretations of Shakespeare through the lens of ten different performances, from the original performance of Hamlet at the Globe in 1600 to a contemporary 2013 take on the play by experimental multimedia theatre company, the Wooster Group.
There are sections examining performances of Shakespeare overseas, the introduction of women playing Shakespeare’s female parts and the politics surrounding black actors playing Othello. The exhibition maintains an impressively objective standpoint, pointing to examples of sexism and racism, and admitting to the many features of Shakespeare’s life (and afterlife) that remain unknown.
The exhibition is a treasure trove of documents, stage props and costumes that tell the story of Shakespeare through the centuries. However, the narrative is somewhat confused: the British Library has made a good attempt at condensing 400 years of Shakespeare productions into ten sections, but the variety of topics, sources and ideas gets somewhat overwhelming. It would have been easier to take in if the curators had stuck to examining each of the chosen ten productions, but instead they have used each play as a jumping-off point for examining wider issues and examples; it’s in danger of creating a feeling of information overload.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare in Ten Acts offers some unique Shakespearean artefacts and is a must-see for Shakespeare and theatre-lovers. The exhibition opens up Shakespeare as he was seen by other cultures and historical ages, and it quickly becomes evident that each of these versions of the Bard is very different from the one we’re familiar with today.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library from 15th April until 6th September 2016, for further information visit here.