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2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and a number of significant events are taking place all over London to mark the occasion. The British Library‘s most recent exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, tells the story of the playwright via ten significant events.


The 1590s was a transformative decade for Shakespeare. He was established as an actor and playwright by the age of 28 or so. The exhibition displays a copy of the First Folio, put together by John Heminges and Henry Condell, without which around eighteen plays, including The Tempest and Macbeth, might have been lost. It is displayed alongside the famous portrait by Martin Droeshout; though it was made from an engraving made after Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson said it was a good likeness.

A number of other books are also displayed, including Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) that referred to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow”: Robert Greene may have been angry he was so successful without having gone to university.

Shakespeare’s first known published work Venus and Adonis (1593) is on display here, as is a volume by Francis Meres. Wit’s Treasury, which praised Shakespeare. We also see a fragment of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore from the early 1600s, part of the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. From here, the exhibition is divided into sections according to the event they cover.

1. A hit, a very palpable hit
The first Hamlet at the Globe, about 1600
Based on the Norse folk tale Amleth, Hamlet (the first quarto of which, different from and much shorter than the longer First Folio version, was published in 1603) marked a step up from previous tragedies. The title character was played by the acclaimed actor Richard Burbage. This section of the exhibition contains a map of London by Visscher, a modern-day poster about the play (“Everybody Dies”), and a human skull owned by Sarah Bernhardt, given to her by Victor Hugo and used by her in performance. There are recordings of nine Hamlets from John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh to Herbert Beerbohm Tree and David Tennant, and a portrait of Richard Tarleton, Elizabeth I’s clown, the possible model for Yorick. We see a portrait of Richard Burbage (and his 1619 epitaph), and views of Elsinore and Kronborg castle, as well as a letter about the burning of the Globe in 1613.

2. Into something rich and strange
The Tempest at Blackfriars Playhouse, about 1610-11
The Tempest was written within few years of the King’s Men taking over the indoor theatre at Blackfriars. From 1609 onwards they played at Blackfriars in winter and the Globe in summer. Shakespeare wrote plays making full use of this intimate space, including masque, spectacle and candlelight. Documents on display include some relating to the sale of rooms at Blackfriars in 1596, and objections from locals feeling that the plays would attract undesirable persons (unlikely, as the prices were much steeper than at the Globe). We see a lute, like those used in the indoor playhouse, and the rewritten version of The Tempest by William Davenant in 1667 to make the most of the spectacle. There is a prompt book from Charles Kean’s elaborate 1857 production, and props from Derek Jarman’s 1979 film, as well as filmed scenes from The Enchanted Island by the Met Opera from 2011, and an Ariel costume from 2016.

3. The wide world
Possibly the first Hamlet outside Europe, 1607.
The first Hamlet is widely believed to have been performed on an East India Company ship off Sierra Leone in 1607, although only a fragment of the diary of Captain Keeling, who wrote it down, survives. A model of a similar style warship, complete with levels, hatch and a rear exit, is on display.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays toured to Europe in the seventeenth century, particularly Germany, and often featured clowns. Not everyone was a fan. Voltaire in his The Ruin of the English Stage in 1733 said that Hamlet was “the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage”. Tolstoy wasn’t a fan either, but Goethe was, and David Garrick helped to establish an English theatre in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The displays include excerpts from the puppet show Der Bestrafte Brudermord by Hidden Room Theatre 2015 based on a German version of Hamlet, and photos from a Soviet production of Macbeth, as well as the first Chinese translation of Shakespeare, a version of Tales from Shakespeare in 1903. The plays had different titles: The Two Gentlemen of Verona was known as Proteus Sells Out His Close Friend for Lust (not a bad description, I reckon). There were also references to West Side Story and Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film Bobby.

4. Do you not know I am a woman?
A woman acts Shakespeare for the first time, 1660
When Shakespeare was first writing his plays, women were not allowed on stage, and all of the female roles were played by men. This changed after the Restoration when Charles II took the throne and issued a patent legitimising female actors. Edward Kynaston was one of the last men to gain reknown playing female roles from the 1660s; Thomas Killigrew’s theatre patent of 1662 established the rights of 1660 and confirmed “women’s parts… may be played by women”.

Women, even royals such as Anne of Denmark, traditionally appeared in court masques but the first woman to appear in a Shakespeare play – probably Anne Marshall – played Desdemona in Othello in 1660. Different female actors, such as Elizabeth Barry, Jane Lessingham, Elizabeth Younge, Sarah Siddons (one of the first women to play Hamlet) and Ellen Terry were able to develop their careers. This part of the exhibition also includes Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume.

5. ‘Tis mad idolatry
A Shakespeare forgery at Drury Lane, 1796
In 1795 law clerk William Henry Ireland ‘discovered’ a number of Shakespeare manuscripts, including Vortigern, later performed at Drury Lane and ridiculed. These forgeries (displayed in their 1796 editions) were one aspect of the industry that began to grow up around Shakespeare. In 1769 David Garrick established the Shakespeare jubilee celebrations in Stratford, which were sadly rained off. This section includes souvenir medals, examples of Shakespeare’s signature (including the Blackfriars Gatehouse mortgage deed from 1613), a poster for the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love and a copy of the play Shakes Versus Shav by George Bernard Shaw, which includes the first mention of the term “bardolatry”.

6. Haply, for I am black
The first Black actor to play Othello in Britain, 1825
At first, white actors such as Edmund Kean (who played the character as a light-skinned North African) used burnt cork to darken their faces to play Othello. The first black actor to play Othello in Britain was Ira Aldridge, an American actor who successfully toured the UK and Europe, using white makeup in order to play “white” characters. Laurence Olivier played Othello in 1964, and I was shocked to discover he refused to allow African-American actor Paul Robeson to come over to play him. Nowadays, of course, non-white actors routinely perform in Shakespeare and it’s hard to imagine this not being the case; this section of the exhibition was a sobering reminder that this state of affairs is actually quite recent.

7. He is return’d
Shakespeare’s King Lear restored to the stage, 1838
Nahum Tate’s 1681 version of King Lear turned it into a romance with a happy ending. William Charles Macready finally performed as Lear in Covent Garden 1838 using the original ending. The original Lear play existed as King Leir, and the story appears in Hollinshed’s Chronicles. This section of the exhibition includes pictures from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a Japanese version of the story, and information about A Thousand Acres, the film of Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel based on the tale.

8. The revolution of the times
Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play often encumbered by dramatic scenery: as an example, Oliver Messel’s design for the 1937 production is on display, as is the headdress worn by Vivien Leigh as Titania. In contrast, Peter Brook’s 1970 production set the action in an abstract white box designed by Sally Jacobs, and there are lots of photographs and designs from the production and tour to look at.

9. The wheel is come full circle
Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night, 2002
This production, starring Mark Rylance (who has contributed costumes to the exhibition), recreated the music, costume and cosmetics of Shakespeare’s time with an all male cast. This part of the exhibition focuses on the desire to return to original practices that began with William Pole in the nineteenth century and came full circle with the reconstruction of the Globe that began in the 1990s.

10. Look here, upon this picture
The Wooster Group Hamlet, 2013
The final part of the exhibition focuses on the Wooster Group production of Hamlet, which made use of the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton which was shown live from the theatre – the first time a Broadway show had been filmed for a cinema audience. It also contains clips of the Laurence Olivier Henry V of 1943.


This is a fascinating, thorough exhibition, full of exciting artefacts and interesting information. Ideal for any Shakespeare or theatre fan.