I have been to a number of exhibits at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill over the years, and while I have found each of them interesting, I have also found their details easy to forget. Usually, you see some old manuscripts, often early Shakespearean folios, or you see manuscripts by his contemporaries, or later books or documents related to his work. The current exhibit, “Shakespeare, Life of an Icon” is different. It is absolutely fascinating and I highly recommend it.
William Shakespeare died in 1616, 400 years ago. Many special events are scheduled worldwide this year to mark this date – this exhibit is one of them.
It’s not that it’s a big exhibit. It runs the one long hallway between the east and west entrances to the building. The thrust of the exhibit is to display Shakespeare as he was a living man in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, both as he saw himself and as others saw him.
There is not much around to show how Shakespeare viewed his own life, but much of what remains is here on display. Deeds to properties, for example, both his homes and the Blackfriar Theater, in which he invested. Baptism records, a letter from the man who was to become his son-in-law, his will.
More interesting are items related to his work. There are contemporary diaries whose entries include thoughts on plays seen by the writers, there is an eye witness account of the fire that destroyed the original Globe Theater. There are not only early version s of his plays, but there are both contemporary manuscripts and books in which Shakespeare is mentioned, or in which he is quoted. There are satires making fun of his relationship with Ben Jonson, his rival and close friend. There is Ben Jonson’s handwritten appreciation of Shakespeare written after Shakespeare’s death. There items discussing the legitimacy of the coat of arms granted the Shakespeare family.
So much, and like in many small but perfect exhibits, each single item is as interesting as the last one.