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Response to Review of Shakespeare in Ten Acts and Discovering Literature: Shakespeare Review

Our main intention for Shakespeare in Ten Acts was to use the 400th anniversary of his death as a milestone from which we would look back at Shakespeare’s evolving reputation and the ways in which each generation has responded to his plays. It was incredibly difficult to aim at any degree of comprehensiveness given that we were considering the work of the world’s most performed playwright, a man who has been written about so extensively for such a long period of time.

We found it helpful, therefore, to narrow things down by arranging our story around ten narrative hooks, ten performances which each hold a mirror up to the era in which they were performed and provide a window into themes that we wanted to explore further. Of course we had more than ten contenders for key performances and we had to whittle these down to what we thought were the most important stories and, crucially, the ones which we could best illustrate with items from the British Library’s collections. We also took advice from our sterling team of academics and writers who advised us on the subjects that they thought most pertinent to a historical examination of Shakespeare in performance. While it would have been lovely to showcase more opera, ballet and contemporary dance in the exhibition, we did have to draw the line somewhere and we decided that it was not possible to go too far into Shakespeare’s influence on other art forms; that could be a whole exhibition in itself.

The importance of the survival of rare books and manuscripts from the early modern period is something that is conveyed to visitors in our interpretive text. We highlight the significance of Shakespeare’s First Folio in preserving 18 previously unpublished plays which might otherwise have been lost to posterity, we emphasise that the first quarto of Hamlet is one of only two surviving copies in the world and that ‘The Book of Sir Thomas More’ has been identified as the only surviving literary manuscript to contain Shakespeare’s hand. To further emphasise the significance of the Library’s collection and its influence on the public understanding of Shakespeare would have risked overloading the visitor with information in an exhibition where there is already much to see and much to read. It may also have led us to stray into didactic territory when our primary ambition was to reveal the human stories behind the performances.

We aim to strike a balance with our interpretive text so as to tell a story as succinctly and compellingly as possible without exhausting the visitor. Where the reviewer found the captioning of the Maxine Peake and Harriet Walter interview to be minimal I think this has arisen because a credit line has been taken for the title of the film itself. The full title of the film appears on screen at the beginning of the interview but naturally those who start watching mid-way through the piece (as is usually the case in an exhibition) will miss this, so we may reconsider this approach for future exhibitions.

With regard to the positioning of elements within the gallery, we spend a lot of time working out the ideal place for objects and text panels and we carefully consider the route visitors will take through the exhibition. We do occasionally have to make slight adjustments for practical reasons – such as moving the introductory text for the global Shakespeare section to allow for a widening of the thoroughfare – but the main text panels remain prominent and easy to spot.

We have been very gratified by the response to Shakespeare in Ten Acts. For it to be regarded as ‘the exhibition’ of the anniversary year and ‘the most amazing collection of Shakespearean history that has ever been assembled’ is high praise in deed and, for us, justifies our maximalist approach to the subject.