Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity

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Will & Jane, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger is co-curated by Austen scholar Janine Barchas (University of Texas at Austin) and theater historian Kristina Straub (Carnegie Mellon University).

The upcoming Will & Jane exhibit explores the parallel afterlives of arguably the two most popular writers in the English language. As household names and literary celebrities, both Shakespeare and Austen are on a “first-name basis” with the reading public.

Since the year 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, just as 2017 will mark the bicentenary of the death of Austen, this exhibit is an opportunity to consider the rise of literary celebrity in terms of 200-year cycles. Does today’s Cult of Jane resemble the first exuberant wave of Bardolatry witnessed in the Georgic period?

The exhibit will zoom in on how Shakespeare was celebrated 200 years ago in order to compare public spectacles like Garrick’s Jubilee and Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery to today’s media celebrations such as BBC “bonnet dramas” made from Austen’s works. The aggressive merchandizing of Shakespeare begun in the eighteenth century also closely resembles the marketing of Austen memorabilia today. Whether made of wood, metal, porcelain, or plastic, a parallel ubiquity of souvenirs promotes both authors in material culture.

From Nahum Tate’s King Lear to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and from Bridget Jones’ Diary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Shakespeare and Austen have both been radically modernized and adapted—sometimes to strange effect. With only six novels to enjoy, Janeites are building a fan-fiction industry that greatly extends Austen’s own corpus. Her characters and stories have in recent years been reworked into everything from Christian dating manuals to slash fiction. The creations of Shakespeare underwent similar repennings in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries when his plays were drastically revised and adapted into operatic spectacles of song and dance—including “tragedies” with happy endings. Literary celebrity thrives on textual mutation, and Will & Jane tells the story of the cyclical rejuvenation of these authors.

Although Austen’s comparative youth as an author allows her only half of Shakespeare’s 400 years of circulation (she may be at the first crest of her fame), the sustained popularity of these two literary greats, as celebrity authors and as icons, looks remarkably similar.