Friday, May 23, 2014

Visiting the Bard

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the Newberry Library’s recent exhibition, “The Bard is Born.”  Having never been to the Newberry before, I was excited to finally get a peek inside of this beautiful building, and even more eager to do so for something Shakespeare-related (bear in mind I was an English major in college and has been an avid fan of Shakespeare since high school)! 

Given the name, I was expecting and desperately hoping for biographical information about Shakespeare, but the title was given due to the timing of the exhibition—opened on April 23rd to mark the 450th birthday of the Bard.  Newberry interpreted “birth” as the rise of the star, the icon, not so much the actual birth of the person, so Shakespeare’s upbringing remains mysterious as ever.  There were a few items lending a brief idea of what life was like at the time Shakespeare was born and growing up, others from during his lifetime that might have influenced his writing, but that’s as much biography as I got. 

From that point, the exhibit jumped to the afterlife for old Shakes, after he had become an icon, via 18th-century pamphlets and posters of early commemorations of his birthday. Most interesting to me were the depictions of Shakespeare as a national treasure, not only for England (obviously), but as a treasure for the United States as well.  There were a few featured published works including claims by Americans that Shakespeare was just as dear to Americans as to England because his works were widely studied and regarded there as well.  This particular inclusion amused me most: a reprint of a painting I had never seen before, The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Muses by British painter George Romney. As you can see below, it depicts Shakespeare’s birth much like that of a saint or even a Greek god.  Indeed, even the muses of classical Greek myth are present for his nativity!  It is a little much, but I have always cherished Shakespeare as something of a godsend myself.  I can relate!

A reprint of The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Muses by British painter George Romney, 1803

Newberry had said that it was using “Henry V” as a lens through which to focus the exhibit.  Indeed, many of the items on display were dedicated to the play, including both a Third Quarto and a First Folio edition of “Henry V,” which is a powerful thing to see if you have never had the opportunity to before (I had, but they are still awesome to behold in person).  Above all other foci, though, the takeaway point of the exhibit was Chicago’s own connection to the play, and to Shakespeare.  It was the first production the Chicago Shakespeare Theater had ever put on (although CST was not known by that name at the time).  The marked up manuscripts from the director of the second production in 1997 were interesting to see.  People can always benefit from looking at someone else’s perspective when it comes to Shakespeare, if only because there is so much to be gleaned from his writing that you might not have noticed on your own.  It was very cool to learn how Chicago has grown with “Henry V” over time, even going back as far as the mid-19th-century with “Henry V” being staged in theaters as well as in early Shakespeare in the Park-type programming.  And of course, they even had a poster of the CST’s current, ongoing production of Henry V (through June 15)! 

Chicago still has ties to Shakespeare, even all these years later.  In the end, “The Bard is Born” did well to prove that the regard for Shakespeare as a national, even a local icon is totally valid—wherever that feeling might be held.  From the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee held at the birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, to this very exhibit itself, we all still can and do feel roused and even included in that famous “band of brothers” when we read, see or hear it.  Chicago has no personal or biographical connections to Shakespeare himself, and yet his works are still so powerful and beloved here that we do in fact have a long history with the Bard.

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