Quirky artefacts, a clip of Homer Simpson’s Macbeth, and signatures of famous visitors including novelist Thomas Hardy and US President Theodore Roosevelt form part of a new exhibition at Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
Famous Beyond Words explores William Shakespeare’s extraordinary story and why a boy from Stratford-upon-Avon became a household name all over the world.
Nic Fulcher, interpretation project manager at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says: “One of the driving forces behind this exhibition is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this year and we wanted to look at his presence in the world around us.”
On entering Famous Beyond Words, visitors are greeted by 12 contemporary portraits of Shakespeare, sculptures and ceramic busts.
“We picked out modern portraits of Shakespeare from the last 50 years – many from our own collection and from international artists globally. Shakespeare truly is a global phenomenon,” says Nic.
At the centre of the exhibition is ‘‘the drum space’’ where visitors are surrounded by a diverse and eclectic mix of audio-video footage of clips from contemporary theatre performances, TV, music, films and dance.
They range from David Tennant’s Richard II and Homer Simpson’s cartoon rendition of Macbeth to a scene in children’s animation movie Coraline where two trapeze artists quote Hamlet’s What a Piece of Work is Man speech. “Every generation has taken Shakespeare’s famous speeches and reinterpreted them,” says Nic.
Famous Beyond Words also reveals how Shakespeare’s work has fascinated people across the world for 400 years and how he still shapes our lives today. A Word Wall features many of the phrases and words from Shakespeare’s plays that have found their way into everyday speech – “To Be or Not to Be” is translated into eight different languages including Mandarin, Japanese, Norwegian and Welsh.
And a digital media appeal for photographs depicting Shakespeare’s presence around us received a huge response from around the world.
Nic, who has curated the exhibition, adds: “Photographs sent in range from a graffiti portrait of Shakespeare on the side of a building in Paris to a shop called As You Like It in Nepal. It’s nice to have a global presence. A lot of our visitors are from global destinations.”
Also on display is one of the three original First Folios.
“If it had not been compiled by the writer’s closest friends and fellow actors Shakespeare’s plays would not have been preserved or survived,” adds Nic. “Now we have The Works of Shakespeare translated into more than 90 languages.”
Other more quirky artefacts include a Shakespeare action figure with a removable quill pen and book, an early 20th century marionette of Shakespeare, and a 1950’s mug in the form of Shakespeare’s head.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace offers a fascinating insight into the writer’s early life and has been welcoming visitors for over 250 years. A beautifully conserved Tudor house, it is where Shakespeare was born, grew up and spent the first five years of married life with Anne Hathaway. The final section of the exhibition draws on the importance of Stratford as a place of literary pilgrimage with two original visitor’s books.
“The Birthplace Trust was founded in 1847. There is an extraordinary collection of original visitor’s books – the earliest dates back to 1812,” explains Nic.
“Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma visited on August 20, 1896. Thomas Hardy also picked up a copy of Hamlet from a local shop. And on June 5, 1910 the visitor’s book was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, his second wife, Edith, their youngest daughter, Ethel, and second son, Kermit. There have been quite a lot of famous visitors including John Keats, Charles Dickens, Princess Diana and the former leader of China.”
A team of dedicated volunteers are currently helping to create a digital archive of the visitor’s books.
Famous Beyond Words was designed and built by Real Studios, working with 59 Productions, the team behind the V&A’s hugely successful David Bowie Is exhibition and The Hub. It is expected to attract 1.2 million visitors over the next three years.
Lady Cobham, chair of Visit England and a trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who opened the exhibition, says: “Shakespeare is an intrinsic part of our national identity in England and abroad. Famous Beyond Words is a fantastic addition to one of our most important heritage attractions.”
* Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations take place in Stratford on Saturday and Sunday. For more details visit www.shakespearesbirthday.org.uk