“Remembering Shakespeare,” the exhibition currently on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, tells the story of how one of many playwright’s in Elizabethan London became the Shakespeare our culture has come to know and love. Although the exhibit reminds us that Shakespeare is singularly idolized, it traces the origin of his singular brilliance as a cultural process.
“One might argue that Shakespeare is a genius, and his long publication history is both the appropriate and necessary acknowledgement of that genius,” David Scott Kastan, George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale and one of the exhibit’s curators, explained. “The first half of that is true. Shakespeare is a genius. His legacy might be an appropriate acknowledgement, but it wasn’t a necessary acknowledgement.”
The exhibition reminds the viewer that in various points in history, the continuation of Shakespeare’s legacy was at stake.
“Remembering Shakespeare” joins — one might argue centers — this semester’s collaborative celebration of Shakespeare at Yale. Curated by Kastan and Kathryn James, the Beinecke Curator the Early Modern and Osborn Collections, the items in the exhibition borrow from the collections of the Yale’s Elizabethan Club, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale Center for British Art, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The exhibition seems to be as much of a tribute to Yale’s astonishing resources as it is to Shakespeare. In creating the exhibition, Kastan said he was most surprised by the depth of Yale’s collections, and more so how few people were aware of the actual extent of Yale’s holdings.
“No university in North America could have done any of this,” Kastan said. “Not only the gathering of this exhibition’s particular collection, but also the orchestration of Shakespeare at Yale as a whole.”
Upstairs, the displays range from striking portraits of Shakespearean actors by Carl Van Vechten, to an advertisement for Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” urging the viewer to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” to the seating chart from Charles Dickens’ wedding — his guests were arranged by Shakespeare quotes. A certain element of playfulness and humor runs throughout the exhibition. Commenting on a deck of Shakespeare playing cards, James remarked, “That’s when you really know you’ve become iconic.”
In addition to the Vechten photographs, the exhibit also includes other visually stimulating works such as oversized prints and panoramic drawings of London with the original Globe Theater in the distance. However, the exhibitions strength and focus lies in the early printings and texts found in the downstairs cases.
“One of the difficulties of exhibitions of books,” Kastan explained, “is that unless you are familiar with a particular edition, all the books tend to look the same. The challenge is to make the story clear and important for those who are not as familiar with the texts.”
The impeccable design and layout allows the exhibition to overcome this difficulty.
All of the cases are arranged predominantly in chronological order, grouped under subtitles such as “Reviving Shakespeare,” “Defining Shakespeare,” “Performing Shakespeare,” and “Shakespeare in America.” The items under these labels are then arranged into groups of five with individual placards explaining the significance of each in the context of the case. This method of identification provides an incredibly logical and effectively coherent relation of the exhibition’s larger narrative without losing the integrity of individual items. As another viewer put it, “This is the most readable exhibit I’ve seen yet. I know what I’m reading, and I know exactly what goes with it.”
James explained that each placard contains one sentence highlighted in red in order to allow the viewer to engage with the texts, even if she wanted to move quickly through the exhibition.
The acute attention to quality of detail extends beyond the physical cases of the exhibition. Beinecke’s revolving door opens to a large and handsome “Remembering Shakespeare” sign that hangs over the security desk. There, the visitor finds the collection’s accompanying brochure. James explained that navigating a visitor through an exhibition at the Beinecke can be difficult given the placement of preexisting cases and the building’s unique architecture. The exhibition’s brochure contains a clearly labeled map that successfully alleviates this problem.
The brochure is a condensed version of a larger “Remembering Shakespeare” catalogue. “The catalogue is not just a wonderful memento of the show,” Kastan said, “but a serious articulation of the narrative. It will become an important scholarly contribution, but is also wonderfully readable for a non-scholarly audience as well.”
The exhibition encourages scholars and amateurs alike to engage with the texts themselves. In preparing for the exhibit, the curators scanned many of the holdings of the Elizabethan Club and Beinecke archives that can now be accessed through the online portion of the exhibition.
“Long after the exhibition comes down, the scanned collections will be online for research,” James said. “That is something we were thinking of as the permanent contribution of the exhibition. That it would not only bring these items together physically, but also for scholarship going forward electronically.”
In addition, the Beinecke has installed iPads synced to the online exhibition. One can stand next to an original edition of the “First Folio” while leafing through its pages online. The “First Folio” is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and is responsible for the preservation of some if Shakespeare’s most beloved work.
“It is a wonderful example of how a modern rare book and manuscripts library can negotiate between the old physical copies that the library owns and the digital aspects that you can make available,” Kastan said. “This allows you to play back and forth between the two mediums in the same space.”
Both James and Kastan were interested in the ways in which the collection’s items demonstrate the historical development over time of a reader’s individual relationship with Shakespeare’s texts. Kastan pointed to an anonymous reader’s accurate correction of a printer’s mistake and a mysterious annotation in the margins of a 1599 edition of “Romeo and Juliet.” The exhibition begins and ends with an edition of the “First Folio,” one belonging to the Beinecke, the other to the Elizabethan Club. James observed that the Elizabethan Club’s edition was much neater than the Beinecke’s, where “someone was so unconcerned with their[edition] that they wrote sums on it, smeared things all over it. This is exactly the way books would have been read in that period.”
Opposite Shakespeare’s iconic portrait in the “First Folio,” Ben Jonson, a dear friend of Shakespeare’s, addresses the reader to look, “not on his Picture, but his Booke.” Ultimately the exhibition is not only about the man himself, but the ever changing and complicated connection of his legacy with the culture that has embraced him. “Remembering Shakespeare” highlights this dynamic relationship in a way that is truly unforgettable.
“Remembering Shakespeare” will be on exhibit from Feb. 1, 2012 to June 4, 2012 at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the title of the exhibition as “Shakespeare Remembered.” The actual title of the exhibition is “Remembering Shakespeare.” Additionally, Ben Jonson’s name was misspelled as Ben Johnson.