Shakespeare's the Thing

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Pages in Pinckney Marcius-Simons' illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1908. Folger Digital Image 81278.

Shakespeare's the Thing, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, was shown in the Folger Great Hall from January 28 to June 15, 2014. Kicking off William Shakespeare's 450th birthday year, this wide-ranging, often unexpected display draws from our unequalled Shakespeare holdings.

From Russian and Czech translations to a musical score by Felix Mendelssohn, from centuries-old printed editions to Salvador Dali set designs, Shakespeare's the Thing offers a wealth of responses to Shakespeare's genius. Join us in exploring four frequent ways of encountering the Bard: fixating on Shakespeare, printing his works, performing his plays, and depicting the man and his characters, from Falstaff to Cleopatra.


Shakespeare's the Thing was curated by Georgianna Ziegler.

Georgianna Ziegler is the Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

After receiving a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in early modern English and French literature, Georgianna taught at Davidson College and Wofford College in the Carolinas. She then returned to the University of Pennsylvania where she served as Curator of the Horace Howard Furness Shakespeare Library in the Rare Book Department, while also teaching classes in English literature and pursuing a library degree at Drexel University.

In 1992, Georgianna came to the Folger where, in addition to her reference and teaching work, she has curated several exhibitions, notably Shakespeare's Unruly Women, Elizabeth I: Then and Now, and Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500–1700, as well as co-curating exhibitions on mapping, on Shakespeare in children's literature, and on the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery.

Georgianna is an active member of the Renaissance Society of America and the Shakespeare Association of America where she served as president. She has published on Shakespeare's heroines, on Elizabeth I and Elizabeth of Bohemia, and on the calligrapher Esther Inglis. She has recently finished a book manuscript, Domesticating the Bard: Women and Shakespeare 1790–1890.

Curator's insights: It Ought To Be Fun

"We wanted to do something special for 2014 to celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday," says Georgianna Ziegler, curator of Shakespeare's the Thing and the Louis B. Thalheimer head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library. "My idea was that it ought to be fun. It's like opening up the Folger vault, all of the weird, funny, wonderful stuff as to how people related to Shakespeare. You can open it like opening a birthday present. What's inside?" The exhibition, she says, is also a look at "Shakespeare through things—the things that people have created about him and their ideas of him."

Those things, of course, are wide-ranging. Among other examples, Ziegler points to the forger William Henry Ireland's faked love letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, complete with a lock of real hair; a Shakespeare-themed Barbie; the Seven Ages of Man cards once given out by a soap company; early Shakespeare editions, beginning in 1709; and several translations, including Hamlet in Sanskrit and "beautifully illustrated" Shakespeare plays in Russian and Czech.

A copy of the iconic 1623 First Folio appears here, too, with a focus on the title-page portrait of Shakespeare. While the First Folio through the 1685 Fourth Folio were printed, the engraving was repeatedly touched up, creating four distinct variations, or states. "In all the time I've been here," says Ziegler, "we've never shown all four states before. We used two Folios and two single leafs for the exhibition, all originals."

To assemble and shape this diverse mix, Ziegler and exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri began with suggestions from the Folger staff. "It was crowdsourced," Ziegler says. "We asked what items they were fascinated by in the collection." Replies came from the specialists who work with the collection every day, and from other staff members as well. Their proposed selections inspired the exhibition's four themes: fixating on, printing, performing, and depicting Shakespeare. Each is identified with a banner in the exhibition hall. "You can do them in any order," says Ziegler, "or wander at will."

Where possible, Ziegler favored "things that were eye-catching," she explains, including designs by Salvador Dali for As You Like It and works by Wyndham Lewis for Timon of Athens, a suggestion by Folger development director Essence Newhoff. "We paired that one with Frank Mowery's book binding for the Folger 60th anniversary in 1992, which is also in a geometric, modernist style. They seemed to go together, and they look well."

Folger Theatre artistic director Janet Griffin proposed "the Jean Hugo designs for a French production of Romeo and Juliet in the 1920s," Ziegler says. "I had shown that book when Janet had visitors to the library." In the exhibition audio tour, Griffin describes the stunning 1924 Paris production, "just eight years before the Folger opened," in which costumes with "iridescent linear designs glowed under what I suspect was the equivalent of black light—quite a psychedelic experience."

Ziegler also notes the special appeal of a copy of an 1886 Paris edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which watercolors cover the text. "It's an amazing book; every page is painted. It's really quite beautiful." The artist Pinckney Marcius-Simons "was fascinated by Wagner's idea of uniting music, literature, and the arts," she explains, so he painted directly on the printed play. The art book has been fully digitized for the exhibition, so that visitors can explore the pages through an on-site display. "We wanted to look at the whole book. I think 'luscious' is the word for it," Ziegler says. "It's really a luscious book."

Contents of the exhibition

"Who is Silvia? what is she?" asks the song in Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona. For at least 300 years, people have been asking the same set of questions about Shakespeare. The desire to understand this poet and playwright, born in 1564, began with the first scholarly edition of his works, published in 1709. New editions, performances, adaptations, and memorabilia appear every year.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare's plays enjoyed a revival on stage that has not ceased. At the same time, antiquarians scoured the archives to find any new bits of information about Shakespeare. Others were not shy about forging documents, so eager was the public for anything "new."

General admiration for Shakespeare spilled over into popular culture then and now: artists have depicted his characters and Shakespeare himself; composers have interpreted his writings in music; actors have defined and redefined his roles; and the rage for Shakespeare has led to a multitude of celebratory objects from tea caddies and dolls to statues and artists' books.

For this exhibition, we asked members of the Folger staff to propose some of their favorite Shakespeare things in the collection, which we then arranged in four sections: Fixating on Shakespeare; Printing Shakespeare; Performing Shakespeare; and Depicting Shakespeare. Discover how we are still celebrating Shakespeare 450 years after his birth.

Shakespeare's the Thing exhibition material

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

Image Gallery

To view images of exhibition highlights, visit this Flickr photo album.

Scholars' insights on Shakespeare's the Thing

Explore four and a half centuries of Shakespeare with Folger staff and others close to the library as they discuss special highlights featured in this exhibition.

Supplemental materials


Listen to Folger staff and others close to the library discuss special highlights in the article Scholars' insights.


Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shares her fascination with William Henry Ireland's forgeries, among them a fake letter from William Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway.

Barbara Mowat, Director of Research Emerita at the Folger, explains how Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare's plays became the basis for subsequent texts over many years.

For Robert Richmond, Director of the 2014 production of Richard III at Folger Theatre, this political cartoon not only illustrates a nineteenth-century actor rivalry but also brings to mind a greater tug-of-war between the U.S. and the U.K. over Shakespeare.

Janet Griffin, Director of Public Programs and artistic producer of Folger Theatre, selected this wonderful example of surrealist theatre, Jean Cocteau's Roméo et Juliette, for its daring design.

Listen to why Essence Newhoff, the Folger's Director of Development, finds this Wyndham Lewis illustration for Timon of Athens so riveting.

The First Folio title portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout appears in four different "states," explains Erin Blake, former Curator of Art and current Head of Collection Information Services at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Related programs

Talks and Screenings at the Folger

Folger Theatre