In commemoration of the life and legacy of William Shakespeare on the four hundredth anniversary of his death in 1616, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is presenting an exhibition, “Shakespeare by the Book: Four Centuries of Printing, Editing, and Publishing.” The exhibition opens on February 22 and will remain open through December 29, 2016, in the Harrison North Gallery. “Shakespeare by the Book” examines how successive generations have reinvented the Bard, and illuminates controversies over competing editions of Shakespeare that emerged at a time when his plays were no longer mere theatrical entertainment, but were gaining appreciation as literary art.
Among the wide variety of items on display are artifacts of the printer’s trade, volumes that trace the plays across the Atlantic and into the Victorian Age, and “Performers’ Editions” once owned by celebrated Shakespearan tragedians—such as the acclaimed African-American actor Ira Aldridge, and Edwin Booth—a celebrated Hamlet of his time who was upstaged by his brother, presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. The exhibit takes us from a time when Thomas Bowdler (as in “bowdlerization”) censored Shakespeare for family consumption, to a 1989 book by Janet Zweig, which supplies the bawdy language of Romeo and Juliet for students to paste back into sanitized ninth grade texts. It showcases the emergence of miniatures as a practical way of transporting Shakespeare, and as a form of whimsical artistry. And it examines the special contributions of University of Virginia professor Fredson Bowers and his grad-student protégé Charlton Hinman in modernizing comparative textual study with the Hinman collator, still in use today.
These are just some of the items that make up the exhibition. Many of the other artifacts featured are editions of the plays, whose British and American publication history is richly documented in the University of Virginia’s collections. Item by item, the exhibition shows how shifting assumptions,expectations, aesthetics, and needs have determined what it means to print Shakespeare “by the book.”
From October 1–26, 2016, the exhibition will host the visiting Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, “First Folio!”