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

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Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened on August 6, 2016 and will close November 6, 2016. Will & Jane is co-curated by Austen scholar Janine Barchas (University of Texas at Austin) and theater historian Kristina Straub (Carnegie Mellon University) with assistance from Georgianna Ziegler, the now-retired Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The exhibition is part of The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare 2016 commemoration of Shakespeare's death

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 Georgian period?

The exhibit zooms 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.


Janine Barchas is Professor of English at the University of Texas, where she teaches Austen in Austin. Her publications include Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2003), which won the SHARP DeLong prize, and Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (2012). She is also the creator of What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org), an online gallery that reconstructs two Georgian art exhibitions attended by Jane Austen—including the first-ever Shakespeare museum.

Kristina Straub is Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University where she teaches 18th-century British literature, gender studies, and performance theory. Her publications include Divided Fictions (1986, on the novelist Frances Burney), Sexual Suspects (1991, on 18th-century actors) and Domestic Affairs (2008, about servants and masters in 18th-century literature). She is currently editing a new anthology and performance sourcebook of Restoration and 18th-century drama, and writing about 18th-century theatrical performances based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Georgianna Zielger is the Folger’s Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, Georgianna Ziegler. A past president of the Shakespeare Association of America, Ziegler has curated a number of Folger exhibitions, including Shakespeare’s the ThingShakespeare's SistersElizabeth I: Then and Now, and Shakespeare's Unruly Women, and has co-curated Marketing Shakespeare and Golden Lads and Lasses, among others. She is the author of numerous journal and reference articles. Before coming to the Folger in 1992, Ziegler taught Shakespeare and was curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Furness Shakespeare Library.

Contents of the Exhibition

William Shakespeare and Jane Austen are not just household names among the reading public. For many enthusiasts, they are known on an intimate first-name basis, simply as "Will" and "Jane." In the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death (and with Austen's 200th only a year away), Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity traces the two authors' distinct—but surprisingly similar—literary afterlives.

In both cases, a shortage of biographical detail or formal portraits left room for admirers in every era to re-imagine these authors. Parodies, merchandising, and adaptations popularized them and their works, often with a cheeky, humanizing touch. Exhibition curators Janine Barchas, professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kristina Straub, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, also recapture some milestone events that enhanced each writer's fame. Among them: the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee organized by actor-manager David Garrick, and a burst of Austen films and “bonnet dramas” in the 1990s.

From porcelain collectibles, to mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to the fictionalized movie fantasy of Shakespeare in Love, Will & Jane uses both rare and modern materials to examine the cult of posthumous celebrity. Other highlights include first editions of Austen's novels, including her theater-filled Mansfield Park, the 1709 Rowe edition of Shakespeare's plays, an array of relics, gravestone rubbings, souvenirs, and more.

Digital displays in the exhibition include a reconstruction of the Boydell Gallery of Shakespeare paintings that 20-year-old Jane Austen may well have seen during a London trip in 1796 (an extension of Barchas's What Jane Saw website) and movie and television video excerpts featuring actors whose own celebrity is associated with both Austen and Shakespeare roles. For additional activities, try our related Family Programs, lectures, and events.

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

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