Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review : Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library – 15th April to 6th September 2016

Exhibition Review : Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library – 15th April to 6th September 2016



In the year that marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, The British Library presents a major new exhibition entitled Shakespeare in Ten Acts which explores how Shakespeare became a cultural icon over the centuries. The exhibition explores the Shakespeare story by focusing on ten key performances which often changed the course of Shakespeare’s legacy.


The first part of the exhibition is called the Prologue and contains some of the rarest printed works, printed editions include Shakespeare’s First Folio and the earliest printed edition of Hamlet from 1603, one of only two copies in the world. One of the rarest items in the exhibition is the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand.


The Ten Acts, part of the exhibition begins with Hamlet which premiered at the Globe Theatre in around 1600. Shakespeare’s relationship with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Richard Burbage is explored in documents with a number of items associated with the play.   One of the highlights include a human skull inscribed with poetry given to actress Sarah Bernhardt by the writer Victor Hugo, which she then used as Yorick’s skull when she famously played Hamlet in 1899.


The next act is based around The Tempest which was written for the Blackfriars Playhouse in around 1610, it is a play that has proved popular with theatre and film makers over many generations due to its rich visual and musical content.


The third act, The wide world explores Shakespeare’s global appeal which provides some evidence that the first production overseas could have been a performance of Hamlet on board a ship in front of an African audience in 1607.

Whilst a large number of actresses have their theatrical reputation playing Shakespeare, the fourth act considers the first woman who appeared in a Shakespeare play in 1660. The name of the woman is unknown but her performance allowed women to establish a presence in British theatre.


Other themes the exhibition explores is A Shakespeare forgery in Drury Lane in 1796, the first Black actor to play Othello in Britain in 1825, the long and complex history of productions of King Lear, Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1970s, the Shakespeare’s Globe version of Twelfth Night in 2002 and a digital version of Hamlet in 2013.


Other highlights include a Prologue read out to warn the audience before the first performance of a woman on stage as Desdemona in Othello in 1660, a dress worn by Vivien Leigh when playing the role of Lady Macbeth in the 1955 production of Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a Hamlet script owned by generations of Hamlet actors including Sir Michael Redgrave, Peter O’Toole and Sir Derek Jacobi, now owned by Sir Kenneth Branagh and the costume worn by Mark Rylance when playing the role of Olivia in the 2012 production of Twelfth Night at the Globe.


This intriguing and entertaining exhibition produces a multi media exploration of Shakespeare’s legacy by featuring treasures from the Library’s collections alongside a wide range of costumes, props, paintings and film clips. It quickly becomes clear that part of Shakespeare’s theatrical longevity is partly due to the diverse ways in which Shakespeare’s plays have been reinvented throughout the ages. Each generation seems to find a way to adapt the plays to make them contemporary and the universal themes allows his work to be performed all across the world.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

15th April – 6th September 2016, British Library.

Admission £12, Seniors £10,

For more information or book tickets, visit the British Library website here

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