Visions of Shakespeare

Visions of Shakespeare McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 19, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 11
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Visions of Shakespeare

Throughout the ages the great interpreters of Shakespeare's works have earned a place in the Western cultural pantheon — Olivier, Leigh, Barrymore. But the Bard was inspiration to more than just thespians, as the "Imag(in)ing Shakespeare: Three Centuries of Representations" exhibit in the McLennan and Redpath Libraries show. Artists, editors and con men have all drawn from the rich well provided by the playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Caption follows
Titania and Bottom by Paul Konewka, 1841–1871, from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, Boston: Robert's Brothers, 1870.

The idea for the exhibit originally came from Irena Murray, chief curator of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division. With a lecture on Shakespeare, combined with a Shakespearean moot court exercise with the Law Faculty, scheduled for March, Murray felt the time was ideal to organize the exhibit.

"I always try to look for exhibition topics that tie in with some public event that the library is involved in. It seemed to be a wonderful opportunity to do a mise en valeur of the Shakespeare collection," she said.

The exhibit, which is spread over two floors of the library, was put together by Rare Books manuscript curator Richard Virr.

"I thought, well, it's not very interesting to look at bits of text," he said.

"I came across a set of photographs of late nineteeenth century actors and actresses, and I thought these were super photographs. So I thought, can we approach this visually, and see how various designers, artists and actors have interpreted aspects of Shakespeare's plays over the years?"

On the main floor of the Redpath Library, each of the display cases is anchored by a large 19th-century Boydell engraving of a scene from one of Shakespeare's plays. These are large-scale reproductions of paintings that Josiah Boydell had commissioned for his gallery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Eight more of these plates are on display in the reading room.

"So many of these are so spectacular, and not many people have seen them," said Virr.

Each engraving is surrounded by images from the same play as imagined by other artists. Where Boydell illustrated the shipwreck in The Tempest, another artist used swirling watercolours to show Trinculo tormenting a monstrous Caliban.

Lady Macbeth is a popular muse in another case, which contains a comic book rendition of Macbeth from the '50s.

Virr explained that the repeated themes were often deliberate.

"In some cases we had enough material to show a variety of approaches to the same figure. The comic book Lady Macbeth, I think, looks like Fu Manchu's daughter," he said.

The style of art is drastically different from item to item. A frontispiece from 1709 shows all the men dressed in contemporary stockings and hats, while in the next case a book is open to a '30s-style line drawing. A whimsical watercolour of Moth, Peasebottom and friends from A Midsummer's Night Dream could have come from children's book, and is neighbour to a nightmarish snake- and skull-infested portrayal of the witches from Macbeth.

The exhibit continues on the fourth floor of the McLennan, where Shakespeare himself is imagined, including unconfirmed manuscripts of the playwright —The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell being one.

Some took a more active approach in imagining Shakespeare's work: they made it up. One enterprising 19th-century Londoner, William Henry Ireland, claimed to have found new texts for "Kynge Lear" and "Hamblette."

"After the original appearance everyone was very excited, but then they got a little more critical," said Virr, adding that in the absence of scientific tests to prove the forgery, a simpler test was used.

"The play that was put on in Drury Lane was so awful it was basically laughed off the stage."

The Bard himself was the muse of many writers and painters. One case is given over to images of Shakespeare. In addition to the familiar portrait of the artist as a grown man, two portray him as an idealized infant. In one he is being "Attended by Nature and Passions" represented by satyrs, demons and faeries. The other pictures him as "Nurtured by Comedy and Tragedy," in a rustic setting.

"I call that 'Shakespeare Playing Moses,' because he looks like the baby Moses being found in the bullrushes," said Virr with a laugh.

And English majors can have fun playing Where's Waldo? with one engraving in which Shakespeare stands to one side, bemusedly watching a parade of all his characters — nymphs and kings, soldiers and tyrants, friends, Romans and countrymen.

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