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

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This article offers a comprehensive list of each piece included in Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of the Celebrity, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.


Will & Jane tracks the parallel afterlives of two of the most popular writers in English: William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Jane Austen (1775-1817). In 2016, we can consider the rise of literary celebrity in real time. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the approaching 200th anniversary of Austen’s.

Modern celebrity culture was born in the late 18th century when a growing entertainment industry staged popular spectacles and exhibitions that fanned the flames of Shakespeare’s early reputation. Similarly, starting in the late 20th century landmark TV mini-series and a wealth of films have done for Austen as she nears her bicentenary what theater and public entertainments did for Shakespeare at his 200 mark.

Two writers, acclaimed for their works, have soared in public recognition, transforming into cultural superheroes. The process of fandom leaves a trail of material objects— from the sublime to the ridiculous. Literary celebrity, from its 18th-century beginnings, is as much about relics and souvenirs as about books and plays.

Explore how today’s Cult of Jane resembles the first exuberant wave of “Bardolatry” (coined from “the Bard” and “idolatry”) in Will & Jane.

Curated by Janine Barchas (University of Texas at Austin) and Kristina Straub (Carnegie Mellon University) with assistance from Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference for the Folger Shakespeare Library

Will & Jane is made possible by the generous support of May Liang, Roger and Robin Millay, the Winton and Carolyn Blount Exhibition Fund of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and supporters of The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare including The Lord Browne of Madingley, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Share Fund, and other generous donors.

[Painting to the right]

Items Included

George Romney (1734-1802).The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions. Oil on canvas. London, 1791-92. FPa49

This painting, which reimagines the birth of Shakespeare as The Nativity, was cut down on all four sides by a previous owner. When it hung as a centerpiece in John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in the 1790s it would have been even larger. To see this painting in its original Georgian context, go to the What Jane Saw touch screen at media station 1. 


Will and Jane are beloved not just for their writing, but for the people that readers imagine them to have been. The fact that we know so little about their lives or what they looked like has meant that readers have felt the need to imagine much. Our desire to know these authors intimately has led to over two centuries of trafficking in the images, lives, and loves of Will and Jane. We have stocked libraries, museums, movie theaters, and gift shops with portraits, souvenirs, forged love letters, and bio-pics that embody what we want them to have been like. Jane Austen lived through the first wave of Bardolatry. In some of her work, we see glimpses of one author’s participation in the fan culture around another.

Picturing the Author

Author portraits and biographies play important roles in Will’s and Jane’s reception as literary celebrities, yet their earliest portraits (in the nearby reproductions) provide a base for imaginative depictions rather than definitive images. The portraits gathered here cluster around the first flush of their fame, 200 years after the authors’ respective deaths.

Even though the well-known Droeshout engraving from the First Folio in 1623 is now the most “authoritative” and widely-circulated image of Shakespeare, it was created after his death in 1616.

In portraits from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Shakespeare is imagined as an aristocratic gentleman in lace collar, a more down-to-earth working artisan, and a romantically poetic dreamer. Painters exercised their imaginations—and contemporary ideas about Shakespeare—with artistic license that seems unconstrained by historical accuracy.

Several images of Austen were made during her lifetime, but most were considered inadequate for use as a public author portrait—too informal or too young. In 1869, Austen’s family commissioned an artist to prettify a small candid sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra (in the nearby reproductions), originally made around 1810. Re-engraved in 1870 for use as a frontispiece to a memoir by James Edward Austen-Leigh, this Victorian version has become the public face of Jane we recognize today. It will be even more widely circulated when it appears on the British ten-pound note next year.

For both authors, ongoing portrait controversies continue the public’s longing for intimacy with the elusive “real” author.

Items Included

1)   Parian bust of Shakespeare. 19th Century. ART 248540

2)   LOAN. Anonymous. Marble bust of Austen on wooden base. Late 20th century. Loan courtesy of Joan Doyle, Member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Eastern Pennsylvania Region

The best-known public images of Shakespeare and Austen are the first engravings used as author portraits to front their printed works. Both are posthumous images. Left: Martin Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare for the title page of the First Folio (1623). Right: The engraving made for James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870).

  • REPRODUCTION. Martin Droeshout (b. 1601). William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio. London, 1623. Engraving.
  • REPRODUCTION. After Cassandra Austen (1773-1845) . Portrait of Jane Austen in J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: Richard Bentley, 1870. Engraving. Reproduction courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[Shakespeare Portraits]

1)   Anonymous.The Staunton Portrait of Shakespeare. Oil on canvas. English, ca. 1770. FPs18.

2)   Anonymous. The Lumley Portrait of Shakespeare . Oil on canvas English, 18th century. FPs23.

3)   Anonymous.The Dexter Portrait of Shakespeare. Oil on panel. 19th century. FPs10.

[Austen Portraits]

From left to right, these works represent the progression of Austen’s public image, from original sketch in 1810 to engraved public portrait in 1870.

1)   REPRODUCTION. Cassandra Austen (1773-1845). Jane Austen drawn from life. Pencil on paper. ca. 1810. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

2)   REPRODUCTION. James Andrews, of Maidenhead Jane Austen. Watercolor on paper. 1869. Image courtesy of 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, Stevenson, Maryland.

3)  REPRODUCTION. Jane Austen Engraving as published in James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798-1874). A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: R. Bentley, 1870. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Missing Lives and Loves

The first biographies of Will and Jane prefaced editions of their works. Editor Nicholas Rowe wrote Shakespeare’s earliest biography in 1709 (1), while Austen’s was authored by her brother Henry for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in December 1817 (2). In both instances, the authors’ lives take up little print space relative to the bulk of their work, yet these slim accounts remain foundational.

The shared myth of humble origins is literally painted onto souvenirs with images of the authors’ respective birthplaces. (3 & 4)

Fan culture tends to fill in biographical gaps with romance. A fake love letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, forged in the 1790s by William Henry Ireland (5), and the manuscript pages from Tom Stoppard’s 1990s screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (6) are just two examples of the continuing desire to give Will the love life for which we have so little evidence. Recently, the film Becoming Jane (7) similarly conjured a romance for Jane.

1)   Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718).The works of Mr. William Shakespear… with an account of the life and writing of the author. London: Jacob Tonson, 1709. PR2752 1709a copy 1 Sh. Col.

2)   LOAN. Jane Austen (1775-1817). Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion. London: John Murray, 1818. First edition in original boards. Loan courtesy of Goucher College Library. PR4034 N7

3)   Pomade jar depicting Shakespeare’s house. Prattware jar with lid, ceramic. England, 19th century. ART Inv. 1056

4)   LOAN. Pillbox depicting Steventon Rectory (Jane Austen’s birthplace). Silver-trimmed ceramic, with image on lid. England, late 20th century. Loan courtesy of Goucher College Library.

5)   William Henry Ireland (1775-1835). Forged letter from William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. Manuscript, ca. 1790s. S.b.157, no.6

6)   LOAN. Tom Stoppard (b. 1937). Typescript page and manuscript scrap of screenplay drafts for Shakespeare in Love. August 1992. Stoppard 51.6.1, Stoppard 50.9.1. Loan courtesy of the Tom Stoppard Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

7)  REPRODUCTION. Becoming Jane. Miramax, 2007. Film poster. Loan courtesy of private collector

Jane's Shakespeare

Jane Austen, born in 1775, experienced Shakespeare’s early rise to celebrity status first-hand. She read and admired his work, referenced him in her fictions, and saw his plays performed on London’s stage. In her novel Mansfield Park (1814), Austen’s characters “all talk Shakespeare” while rehearsing amateur theatricals. (7) Three of her fictional characters in that novel, Yates and the Crawfords, share surnames with famous Shakespearean actors of the 18th century. The playbill on display announces the performance of The Merchant of Venice that Jane saw on 5 March 1814. (1) In a letter to her sister, she deftly describes that night’s performance by Edmund Kean. (6) Kean’s portrait on a snuff box contrasts with an engraving of him as he looked in the role of Shylock. (2& 3) A paper “pinup” of actress Mrs. Crawford and a jewelry pin of diva Mrs. Yates give further evidence of the emerging culture of celebrity in which Austen was both witness and participant. (4 & 5)

1)    Playbill for Merchant of Venice. Drury Lane Theatre, March 5, 1814. Bill Box G2D84 1813-1814. No. 141. Copy 2.

2)   Samuel Raven (1775-1847), artist. Circular table snuff box painted with portrait of Edmund Kean (1787-1833). Papier mâché. English, ca. 1822. ART 241306

3)   Henry Hoppner Meyer (1783-1847), printmaker. Edmund Kean as Shylock. Great Britain, 19th century. Mezzotint. ART File K24.4 no.39 part 1

4)   Mrs. Crawford in the Character of Cleopatra. Stipple engraving of tragedienne Ann Barry Crawford (1734-1801). Great Britain, late 18th century. ART File C899 no.7

5)   Mary Ann Yates (1728-1784), Actress. Depicted on medallion en grisaille. English, ca. 1777. ART 241267

6)   LOAN. Jane Austen (1775-1817). Letter signed to her sister Cassandra Austen. March 5-8, 1814. Manuscript. MA 977.36. Loan courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Purchased by J.P. Morgan, Jr. in 1920.

7)   LOAN. Jane Austen (1775-1817). Mansfield Park. London: T. Egerton, 1814. First edition in original boards. PR4034 M3 1814 v.1-3. Loan courtesy of Goucher College Special Collections.


No manuscript of a complete Shakespeare play in his handwriting survives, but a play in Austen’s hand does. 200 years later, theater and film professionals dramatize her novels, turning them into scripts for stage and screen.

This lighthearted dramatization sets scenes from the 1755 novel Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson—one of Jane Austen’s favorite writers. (1) While it remains uncertain whether Austen authored this adaptation in whole or in part (family legend held that her niece Anna was author and Aunt Jane a mere amanuensis), it does give us evidence of Austen’s participation in just the type of amateur theatricals that she seems to critique in her fiction.

Biographers agree that the young Jane was an active participant in family theatricals throughout her youth at the Steventon rectory, where the Austens staged plays in their barn. The back-stage tomfoolery in Mansfield Park does not make Austen anti-theatrical.

Just as Austen turned Richardson’s novel into a play, others have realized the dramatic potential of her novels. Actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson adapted Sense and Sensibility for the silver screen in 1995 (2). Thompson scripted and starred in the film, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress.

1)    Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Sir Charles Grandison, or the Happy Man. A Comedy

Manuscript in five sections, of varying sizes, pinned separately

ca. 1791, ca. 1800

792 AUS

Loan courtesy of Chawton House Library

2)    Emma Thompson (b. 1959)

Screenplay of Sense and Sensibility

Author’s annotated typescript


Loan courtesy of Emma Thompson