Metamorphosis: Experts say 21st century is seventh age of William Shakespeare's works

By Ben Miller | 26 April 2016

Four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s baptism, a new exhibition suggests digitising his work only creates the latest stage in its metamorphosis

Watch the video of the installation on Senate House's stairs

The publication of the First Folio, in 1623, effectively set in motion a series of “ages” during which Shakespeare’s words were continuously reinterpreted and discovered anew. The University of London’s Senate House, which holds all four of the folios, is suggesting the digital era could be the seventh of these ages, taking inspiration from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It.

Curators have assembled 30 rare texts from across the centuries, digitising many more on a dedicated website where you can also see actor Paterson Joseph slink around the corridors recounting famous lines. Jackie Marfleet, the Librarian at the house, defines the stages as distinct. “When Shakespeare died, things were very different,” she points out.

“There were no officially recognised versions of his works at all. Shakespearian scholarship and the texts of his works have undergone a process of metamorphosis over the past four centuries. The folios themselves are now part of our global heritage. They are objects of wonder and scholarship in their own right. We are immensely proud to house them here in the library.”

Several of the plays were printed for the first time in the 1623 folio, although some had appeared earlier, published as the period’s equivalent of a cheap paperback. Sonia Massai, a Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College, believes Shakespeare truly became England’s national poet during the 18th century. “Earlier writers and playwrights like Nahum Tate, John Dryden and William Davenant had revised his works quite radically for the stage,” she says.

“But 18th century audiences fell in love with Shakespeare all over again thanks to great actors like David Garrick, who was described by one of his contemporaries as the best leading commentator on Shakespeare. He played a crucial role in restoring the original versions of Shakespeare’s plays to the stage.

“The 18th century also marked the rise of the editorial tradition. Anonymous correctors started to edit Shakespeare’s texts in the 17th century, but now his works were being edited by the great poets and scholars of the period including Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and Edmond Malone. They were being published in lavishly annotated, multiple editions.

“Similarly, Shakespeare’s texts as spoken on stage were being purged of all regional accents and became the paragon of phonetic propriety.”

A broadly authoritative text began to emerge against a backdrop of bitter disputes during the 19th century. The 20th century saw Shakespeare appropriated by cultures across the world – he is known as one of the three great German writers – and there were even plans to create a national memorial theatre in his honour in Bloomsbury. In between then, according to Michael Slater, an Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck, the power of commentators increased.

“The 19th century was the golden age of Shakespeare scholarship, with the establishment of one authoritative corpus of work and also the great age of Shakespearian productions in the theatre with the most famous actors of the day, from Edmund Kean right through to Henry Irving playing the great lead roles, especially in the tragedies,” he says.

“Shakespeare was also a massive influence on writers in the 19th century – above all, the greatest novelist of the day, Charles Dickens. At the same time, cheap publications like Charles Knight’s Shakespeare were bringing his plays into a very wide readership.”

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to find out more by booking 30-minute sessions with the exhibition curators, receiving a tour of a series of texts focusing on the evolution of Othello.

Five important objects

© Senate House Library

The Fourth Folio (1685)

Dr Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and Art at the library: “For an exhibition on Shakespeare, it was impossible not to have one of the early folios. The question was merely which one. I’ve chosen the Fourth, which might seem a slightly odd choice because, to many people, it’s a cheap and nasty reprint of the Third. That’s because it lacks the embellishments of the early folios.

Not every play opens on a new page: Twelfth Night, for example. You don’t have the head and tail pieces, just empty space. But despite that, the Fourth is extremely important – not for itself so much, but because it’s the edition that Nicholas Rowe chose to base his first Octavo edition on in 1709, and so it had a tremendous influence on 18th century editions and it means that the section of the exhibition on the 17th century flows very well into the 18th.”

© Senate House Library

Shakespeare Memorial Souvenir of the Shakespeare Ball (1911)

Richard Espley, Head of Modern Collections: “This is, without doubt, my favourite item in this exhibition. It is a rare and beautiful souvenir of a 1911 ball held to raise funds to build a Shakespeare National Memorial Theatre – something which never took place, but a project which briefly owned the land on which Senate House stands.

This is the personal copy of Sir Israel Gollancz, the Committee Secretary to the Memorial Theatre, and his guests this evening included European royalty and pre-eminent literary figures, all dressed as their favourite Shakespearian characters. While the event raised the equivalent of around £1 million today, the idea of Shakespeare’s text has entirely disappeared in a frivolous aristocratic froth of dressing up, waltzes and processions.

The souvenir contains numerous photographs as records of the outfits: some, like the honourable Mrs Alfred Lyttelton, commissioned oil portraits which were later photographed for the book. My own personal favourite is Vita Sackville-West: appearing, quite inexplicably, with a whip.”

© Senate House Library

Metamorphosis – Shakespeare Folios and Quartos (1909)

Richard Espley: “AW Pollard, who was the first Professor of Bibliography at the University of London, was a key figure in 20th century Shakespearian scholarship. This work largely restored the text of Quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays as subjects of serious scholarship.

The text had been previously largely disregarded but Pollard argued that they may, in fact, be closer to that tantalising shadow: an original Shakespearean manuscript. Pollard and his colleagues tried hard to erase later, misleading alterations to the text. In the process they approached this issue with a traumatic and rather poignant sense of loss.”

© Senate House Library

Arden edition of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra (1920)

Richard Espley: “It has been entirely transformed by the annotations crowding its pages. It belonged to the theatrical director Harley Granville Barker, known for rejecting naturalistic scenery and adapting Shakespeare into stylised productions that returned the emphasis to the words spoken.

Granville Barker later dedicated himself to writing a series called Prefaces: sensitive yet entirely practical approaches to the text as theatrical scripts. There’s a certain pleasing circularity in having this volume in the exhibition as it shows a mind entirely focused on returning the text to the stage.”

© Senate House Library

Notebook on early editions of Shakespeare including entries by John Payne Collier

Richard Espley: “The bulk of this manuscript is in the hand of Collier, a self-made Shakespearean scholar, exposed conclusively in 1860 as an enthusiastic, if inexpert, forger, notably of numerous supposedly contemporary annotations on the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

There’s a pleasing irony in the fact that the chief interest in this manuscript lies in that man’s many fabrications, but that this appears to be an entirely accurate copy of a reference work on the sale of certain First Folio. In the exhibition, this serves to remind us that certain forgeries, such as Collier’s, are perhaps one symptom of a shared and sometimes desperate hunger for a genuine version of Shakespeare’s text.”

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