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.
“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.”
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.