Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

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Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened January 20, 2016 and closed March 27, 2016. Life of an Icon was curated by Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts and Archivist at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was part of The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare 2016 commemoration of Shakespeare's death.

We will never have a photograph of William Shakespeare or a recording of his voice, but we can catch glimpses of the man in this stunning array of documents from his own lifetime. Shakespeare, Life of an Icon brought together some of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare's life and career, drawn from the Folger collection and other major British and US institutions. Among them: deeds recording Shakespeare's real estate purchases, drafts of the heraldic grant of arms that he helped his father to obtain, diary entries about seeing his plays and buying his works, and quick takes on Shakespeare's fast-rising reputation—from disdained, "upstart crow" in 1592, to the "sweet swan of Avon," as his friend Ben Jonson describes him in the preliminary material to the first edition of Shakespeare's collected works, the 1623 First Folio. Seen together, these glimpses provided a fresh and intimate perspective on the most famous author in the world.

The exhibition included the premier of Shakespeare Documented, an online exhibition featuring hundreds of manuscripts, printed books, and more that document Shakespeare in his own time.

Curation

The exhibition was curated by Heather Wolfe.

Heather Wolfe is curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has curated numerous Folger exhibitions and has written widely on early modern manuscripts and the intersections between print and manuscript. She has edited The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 (2007), The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary (2007), and Letterwriting in Renaissance England (2004), an exhibition catalog co-written with Alan Stewart.  She is principal investigator for EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online), a project to create a free and searchable database of images and transcriptions of early modern manuscripts created in England or written in English, and curator of the online exhibition, Shakespeare Documented, a repository of images, descriptions, and transcriptions of documents and printed texts that refer or allude to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s works, and Shakespeare’s family in their lifetimes.

Contents of the Exhibition

We will never have a photograph of William Shakespeare or a recording of his voice, but we can catch glimpses of the man in this stunning array of documents from his own lifetime. After more than four centuries, a surprising number of documents referring or alluding to Shakespeare survive.

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon brings together some of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare's life and career, drawn from the Folger collection and other major British and US institutions. These records give us a firsthand look at the most famous author in the world.

This is a "treasures" exhibition: each item is a standout in a different way. A sampling includes:

  • the only surviving copy of the first edition of the first Shakespeare play to be printed, Titus Andronicus
  • Shakespeare's copy of the bargain and sale for his purchase of a residence in Blackfriars near the winter theater of the King's Men
  • Shakespeare's copy of the final concord for his purchase of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • the draft "letters patent" authorizing a coat of arms for Shakespeare's father, and subsequently Shakespeare
  • a fragment of a bookseller's list which includes one of Shakespeare's "lost" plays, Love's Labors Won
  • a section of a play thought to be in Shakespeare's own handwriting
  • the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare
  • the earliest references to Shakespeare as a playwright and a poet

The only known account of Shakespeare's death, also included in the exhibition, is a word-of-mouth tale written in a diary nearly 50 years later by John Ward, vicar of Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died of a fever, Ward wrote in the early 1660s, after an overly "merry meeting" with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Among other references to Shakespeare, Ward made a familiar-sounding note to himself: "remember to peruse Shakespear's plays and bee versed in them that I may not bee ignorant in that matter."

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon Exhibition Material

This article offers a comprehensive and descriptive list of each piece included in the exhibition.

Supplemental Materials

To learn more about the items in this exhibition and more, visit Shakespeare Documented, a repository of images, descriptions, and transcriptions of documents and printed texts that refer or allude to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s works, and Shakespeare’s family in their lifetimes.