Multi-gallery exhibition explores how Shakespeare created his work as well as how others have created him in the 400 years since his death.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—and the beginning of his illustrious afterlife as a literary icon and cultural phenomenon. The Newberry is celebrating the occasion with a multi-gallery exhibition exploring the Bard’s creativity as well as the creativity of the countless writers, printers, actors, musicians, and artists who have re-contextualized, re-imagined, and re-invented his work over the past 400 years. Creating Shakespeare, now open, is part of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, the yearlong festival organized by Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“We are proud to contribute to Shakespeare 400 Chicago, which has already provided this city with an incredible range of opportunities for accessing the Bard,” said Newberry President David Spadafora. “The festival is itself an example of the adaptive power of Shakespeare that we believe our exhibition will further illuminate for visitors.”
Most of the nearly 200 objects on display come from the Newberry’s collection; the rest will appear on loan from other institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Highlights include the first-ever printing of Hamlet; a costume worn by famous 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) for the role of Iago in Othello; and video clips from Chicago Ruth Page’s never-publicly-performed choreography for Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Taming of the Shrew.
In tracing Shakespeare to his sources of inspiration as well as his earliest appearances in print, Creating Shakespeare features a number of rare artifacts from early modern England. Visitors will be able to see Chicago’s only copy of the 1623 First Folio; 16th- and 17-century quartos, small editions of individual plays that exist today in only a handful of copies; and hornbooks, pedagogical tools used during the Renaissance to teach students like Shakespeare to read.
“To understand Shakespeare, it’s important to understand the environment in which he lived,” said exhibition curator Jill Gage. “Shakespeare was constantly referencing a set of cultural signifiers that his audiences would have understood and appreciated.”
Over time, Shakespeare became a cultural signifier in his own right, spawning illustrated editions, musical scores, dance performances, comic books, and even the occasional advertisement for canned meats. Creating Shakespeare guides visitors through this funhouse of adaptation, providing examples from the Newberry’s rich and varied collection of Shakespeare-related materials.
“The story of Shakespeare has continually changed as successive generations have discovered his work and filtered it through their perspectives,” said Gage. “By presenting how Shakespeare created and has been created, we’re hoping to encourage the continued creative use of Shakespeare, now and into the future.”
Creating Shakespeare,now open to the public, and will run through December 31. While the exhibition is open, a number of related public programs will expand upon its themes. Admission to both the exhibition and the public programming is free.
Creating Shakespeare is sponsored by Rosemary J. Schnell, Exelon, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, and Paul C. Gignilliat.