Shakespeare and Scotland exhibition opens

Shakespeare and Scotland: He's oor Wullie as weel

He is known the world over as England's bard, but a new exhibition will reveal how Scotland helped to cement and then enrich the reputation of William Shakespeare.

The exhibition, entitled 'Beyond Macbeth', has been organised jointly by the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and the University of Edinburgh and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It will give visitors the rare opportunity to see some of the earliest surviving examples of Shakespeare's works. This includes a copy of the First Folio, the collection of 36 of his plays published by actor friends seven years after his death. Without this collection, some of Shakespeare's plays might never have survived.

The exhibition features a world-class collection of Shakespeare related material held by both institutions that was gathered over four centuries by key figures with Scottish connections. In the process, it tells a little-known story of how Shakespeare has been seen from Scotland down the centuries.

'There is much more to the way people in Scotland have engaged with Shakespeare than just Macbeth in a kilt,' says Helen Vincent, a senior curator at NLS. 'With this exhibition, we are looking beyond Macbeth to explore what Shakespeare means to different people at different times. We are also asking the question — what does he mean to us today?'

The exhibition looks at Shakespeare through the eyes of three individuals and one family, from his own time, when he was just one of many playwrights writing for the London stage, through to his iconic status in the 19th and 20th centuries:

  • William Drummond (1585-1649), a Scottish poet and contemporary of Shakespeare who was one of his earliest admirers. Drummond gifted his Shakespeare quartos to the University of Edinburgh.
  • The Bute family who were aristocratic patrons of the arts and collectors of Shakespeare's works in the 18th century. This collection is now at NLS.
  • James Halliwell-Phillipps, (1820-1889) a Victorian collector with an obsessive interest in Shakespeare. He left his collection to Edinburgh University.
  • John Dover Wilson, (1881-1969) a respected 20th century scholar who brought Shakespeare to a wide audience. A Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University and trustee of NLS, he helped secure some of these collections for both institutions ensuring they can be seen by the public today.

Early versions of Shakespeare's texts were published as small cheap playbooks in a format called 'quarto'. These quartos are at the heart of the exhibition and will include one of the rarest of all, the 1599 edition of 'Titus Andronicus'. While quartos are treasured today for their connection to the past, they were little regarded in their day. They were often used as working texts that people wrote on, altered and even cut up.

Dr James Loxley, senior lecturer in English Literature at Edinburgh University said: 'This exhibition is not about the untouched book in a case. It’s about how people have engaged with Shakespeare's words. People scribbled on texts, cut them up, edited them and made facsimile pages. All these interventions and interactions show us how people regarded Shakespeare at different points in time.'

That is being reflected in the exhibition which will encourage visitors to play with Shakespeare's words and ideas in a number of different ways. There will be a magnetic 'Shakespeare sonnet board' with unfinished lines that people can complete for themselves. Similar paper versions will also be available. Family activity will involve designing a Shakespeare costume and web features are planned to allow anyone with an internet connection to join in.

'Most people think of Shakespeare in an English context,' said Helen Vincent 'but we hope to highlight the wealth of Shakespeare material available in Scotland and his importance in Scottish literary life.'

The 'Beyond Macbeth' exhibition is on from 9 December to 29 April at the National Library of Scotland, George 1V Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW. Entry is free.

9 December 2011

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