Even though William Shakespeare never set foot in Chicago, the writer’s influence has long been palpable in the city, and the Newberry Library has the collection to prove it. In conjunction with the citywide celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, Shakespeare 400 Chicago, “Creating Shakespeare,” a new exhibit, features nearly 200 Bard-related objects, including a playbill from 1862 that credits John Wilkes Booth as the lead in Othello at Chicago’s McVicker’s Theater, a personal ad signed “Hamlet and Iago” from an 1877 newspaper, and a collection of facial hair from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s costume department.
“Creating Shakespeare” is one of the largest exhibits the Newberry has ever held. Curator Jill Gage spent four years whittling down the library’s amassment of more than 20,000 Shakespeare-related items. In that time she discovered that some of the most compelling artifacts came not from Shakespeare himself but from other writers, artists, actors, and more, many of whom had spent time in Chicago. Shakespeare’s fame and popularity owes to others’ interpretations of his work, not necessarily the work itself, she says.
“He is a brilliant writer, but there were lots of brilliant writers in Shakespeare’s age,” Gage says. “Why not Ben Jonson? Why not Thomas Kyd?”
Along with the Newberry’s collection, “Creating Shakespeare” includes pieces from the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare, the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and a series of private collections.
“Sometimes books under glass lose a lot of their charm, and it’s hard to really appreciate them,” Gage says. “What I wanted to do was give people more items to help the time period come alive in different ways.”
Some examples of the nonliterary material: a costume Booth’s distinguished actor brother Edwin wore as Iago and a film of local choreographer and dancer Ruth Page performing as three different Shakespeare heroines in 1939. The oldest item is a tally stick from the 1300s, a once-common, wooden, wishbone-shaped item used for keeping track of debt through a system of notched tallies. Shakespeare referenced it in “Sonnet 122,” and Gage says she hopes its presence, along with other items like it, adds another layer of understanding to the Bard’s world.
One section of “Creating Shakespeare” is dedicated entirely to Hamlet and features the first printing of the play from 1603; there are only two copies in the world, and neither has been in the United States until now. The actual text is an alternate version of the original script—Gage believes it was created by an actor who memorized the lines and then wrote them down to use for a touring production. There are similar stories behind every piece, indications of how writers and artists throughout history have made Shakespeare’s work their own.
In addition to the standing exhibit, the Newberry is hosting a series of programs to further emphasize how Shakespeare continues to influence local modern culture, including a night of improvised Shakespeare, a performance by Chicago Opera Theater, and lectures about his work’s relationship to women, dance, and film.
“I really wanted it to be engaging, and Shakespeare is about being engaging and about performance,” Gage says. “Shakespeare 400 Chicago has been a really good example of all the creativity you can tap into in Chicago that still thinks about Shakespeare as an inspiration.” v