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Shakespeare Connected - Shakespeare Among Readers

This blog introduces a Shakespeare Connected exhibition on Shakespeare, books and readers.

Dr Christina Lima

A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Dr Christina Lima, SFHEA, University of Leicester. With the assistance of Eduardo B. Lima, PhD, Brunel University London.

We are often reminded that Shakespeare was a man of the theatre and did not seem interested in having his plays printed as books. Although this is almost certainly true, he seems to have been personally involved in the publication of his long poems, which were widely acclaimed and received various reprints during his lifetime. Books were also the most frequent source material he used to create his dramatic plots and characters. He drew inspiration from the classic Roman and Greek writers, from history books, Italian novellas, and a range of other printed material.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections hold a variety of images, books, and objects that highlight the importance of the material presence of the book in association with Shakespeare’s life and work, from the 16th to the 21st century. Instead of following a strict chronological order, this online exhibition tells us a story that emphasises the associations between books and the rhythm of life, as well as their power as symbols of social status, faith, wisdom, and learning.

The three selected portraits show the importance of the presence of books in order to construct the image of the depicted sitter. Both the Chesterfield portrait of Shakespeare, which opens the exhibition, and the portrait of Prof Sir Stanley Wells, which closes it, show books in a way that attest to the knowledge and the intellectual authority portrayed individuals possess. The portrait of a young gentlewoman holding a prayer book, reminds us of the longstanding associations between religious faith and the written word.

Portrait of Mary Harvey
Portrait of Mary Harvey, 1620 (SBT 1998-29)

The chosen watercolours, woodcuts, and other objects highlight the importance of books and the act of reading at different stages of people’s lives. They make connections between reading practices and the significance of specific works and publications in different historical periods. Above all, they are linked in one way or another to Shakespeare’s life, works, and reception. They tell us about the material conditions in Elizabethan and Jacobean England; inform us about the cultural influences that shaped his plays and poems; and give us glimpses of how Shakespeare’s status as the greatest writer of the English language has been built through centuries after his death.

Thanks to Rev Dr Paul Edmondson for the initiative, guidance, and support which made this project possible. Thanks to the staff of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who kindly made the items in the Collections available.

To view Chris Lima's exhibition in full, click here

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