Brandishing the Bard

Special Features   Brandishing the Bard For any Shakespeare fan, Chicago’s Newberry Library exhibit is a must-see.
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As the world marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Chicago had good reason to boast. Even though it’s an ocean and half a continent away from Shakespeare’s home turf in England, the city hosted the largest celebration of the Bard in 2016.

“There’s really nothing that matches Shakespeare 400 Chicago,” says Jill Gage, referring to the year-long series of events that took place at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and other venues around town. As that festival wraps up in December, Gage has curated an exhibit at the Newberry Library called Creating Shakespeare. Inside two galleries flanking the research library’s entrance, glass cases offer glimpses of rare books—including the Newberry’s very own copy of the First Folio, a massive tome that collected all of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Just seeing Shakespeare’s words printed in black ink on that yellowed, centuries-old paper is an eye-opening experience.

<i>First Folio</i>
First Folio Courtesy Newberry Library

“It helps us to understand how earlier readers experienced the text,” Gage says. “The book was big. That meant something to them. There was never before a collection of plays like that. When you start seeing the books themselves, you start seeing how Shakespeare was produced and consumed and disseminated in his own lifetime, and beyond.”

Indeed, the exhibit takes the story of Shakespeare beyond the 1600s, using books, playbills, posters, and artworks to explore how performances and perceptions of his plays evolved over the ages. And Chicago itself plays a role in the show.

“Shakespeare has really helped us to define culture in Chicago,” Gage observes, noting that Shakespeare plays were performed on the city’s earliest stages in the 1830s, when Chicago was a muddy frontier town. After McVicker’s Theater opened in 1857 on Madison near Dearborn Street, his dramas and comedies became regular fare in the booming metropolis. “That’s how we defined ourselves as a major city in the 19th century,” says Gage. “You need an opera house. You need a theatre. In the early days, Shakespeare played a major part in that.”

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress shut down theatres to keep out the contamination of scripts from King George’s realm. “It was really an embargo against British culture, in the same way that there was an embargo against tea,” Gage explains. But in the decades after the United States won its independence, Americans flocked to Shakespeare productions. “Shakespeare gets quickly taken up as very American,” relates Gage. “They really liked Richard III, because Richard III is about the evil king who usurps the real king. That has this connection to what they thought about the monarchy.”

<i>Macbeth</i>
Macbeth Courtesy Newberry Library

Creating Shakespeare includes American actor James Henry Hackett’s 1863 book about Shakespeare’s plays. He sent a copy to President Abraham Lincoln, who then sent a letter to the author. “Some of Shakspeare’s [sic] plays I have never read; while others I have gone over frequently,” Lincoln wrote. “Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.” Lincoln went to see that bloody drama on Oct. 17, 1863, at Grover’s Theater in Washington. And the Newberry exhibit includes the playbill from that night’s performance.

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Two of the most striking items in the exhibit are connected with the Booth family, America’s most famous clan of thespians in the mid-19th century. One is a costume (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) worn by Edwin Booth when he portrayed Iago, the conniving villain in Othello. Another is a program advertising Othello at McVicker’s Theater on January 29, 1862, starring Edwin Booth’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, in the title role.

Vintage program
Vintage program Courtesy Newberry Library

In the midst of the Civil War, this Confederate sympathizer wore blackface as the Moor who’s besieged with jealousy. Reviews in the Chicago Tribune were glowing, reports Gage. “They loved him. They said if you loved Shakespeare, you had to see the new Booth brother. He was the toast of Chicago society at that moment.” Three years later, John Wilkes Booth achieved a different sort of fame, of course, killing President Lincoln and going down in history as a villainous assassin.

Moving into the 20th century, the Newberry’s exhibit includes rare movie footage and photos of the legendary Chicago ballerina and choreographer, Ruth Page, performing Three Shakespearean Heroines in 1939. The wordless piece starred Page as Lady Macbeth, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Catherine from Taming of the Shrew. “She thought the costume was really the key to the performance, and that the costume itself would inspire what the dance would look like,” Gage says. But after Page filmed herself, she was unsatisfied and decided against performing the piece in front of an audience. She gave the movie to dance critic Ann Barzel, and the Newberry obtained the rights to display it during this exhibit.

Edwin Booth’s costume
Edwin Booth’s costume Courtesy Newberry Library

When the Newberry’s exhibit closes on December 31—and the yearlong Shakespeare 400 Chicago festival comes to an end—many of the items on display will go back into the Newberry Library’s collections. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see them.

Items can’t be checked out, but anyone can sign up for a free registration and look at books and documents in the Newberry’s reading rooms. Those items include even such valuable pieces as the First Folio. Its actual title—missing an apostrophe in the playwright’s name—is Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, and it is one of 232 surviving copies. A Chicago collector named Louis H. Silver left it to the Newberry upon his death in 1963. The late actor Peter O’Toole visited the Newberry in 1997 and took a look at the First Folio, eyeing the pages filled with words he’d performed on stage and screen throughout his celebrated career. It’s said that O’Toole even kissed the book.

Kissing rare books isn’t encouraged at the Newberry, but Gage says it’s fine for visitors to turn the pages of the First Folio, getting a sense of what it felt like for someone to read those same words four centuries ago. “That was part of my reason for wanting to make the exhibition accessible,” she says. “I want to open people’s minds to what they can do at the Newberry.”

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