“Remember Me”: Shakespeare and His Legacy

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies: Published according to the True Originall Copies. London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623.  32.1 x 22.2 cm, closed. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University LibraryThis year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on April 26, 1616. To commemorate the occasion, the Art Museum has partnered with the Princeton University Library in presenting an exhibition devoted to ways in which Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical achievement has been memorialized in the visual arts, from the first compilation of his collected plays, published in 1623, to nineteenth-century designs for famous staged productions.

“Remember Me”: Shakespeare and His Legacy showcases works from the Library's Rare Books Division and the Graphic Arts Collection, together with works from the Art Museum and a private collection, to present twenty-two rare books, prints, and drawings. Selected with the help of Bradin Cormack, professor of English at Princeton, the works on view examine how Shakespeare’s identity has evolved over time into the monumental figurehead of British literature we know today.

The exhibition begins with a display of seventeenth-century publications of Shakespeare’s texts, including a superb copy of the fabled First Folio—the first published edition of his collected plays, printed in 1623 and one of the treasures of the Princeton University Library. The title page bears a portrait of Shakespeare that is thought to be one of only two surviving representations of the author that may have been drawn from life. The First Folio will be followed by three exceedingly rare examples of the quarto editions of individual plays—two of which were published in the author’s lifetime—and two volumes of the poems and sonnets published by John Benson in 1640. As Shakespeare left no autographic manuscripts of his work, these books represent the earliest surviving examples of the author’s literary legacy, and their pages present the historical touchstone from which our understanding of the authenticity of Shakespeare’s language has been derived.

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), The Death of Ophelia, 1843. Lithograph, from the portfolio Hamlet, 1834–43. Published by Dusacq & Cie., Paris, 1864, 18.6 x 25.5 cm. Graphic Arts Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Gift of Sinclair Hamilton, Class of 1906While Shakespeare’s plays continued to be performed and read in England throughout the seventeenth century, his reputation as a national literary icon exploded in the 1740s with the enormously popular theatrical performances by the legendary actor and producer David Garrick and with the publication of a ten-volume collection of the dramatic works, edited and annotated for historical authenticity by Samuel Johnson between 1745 and 1765.

The exhibition continues with exceptional drawings and prints that trace the trajectory of Shakespeare’s legacy in the visual arts along three lines: Shakespeare’s dramatic works as the literary inspiration for eighteenth-century British history painting; his comedies as commentary on social values; and his plays presented as a theatrical experience, featuring nineteenth- and early twentieth-century illustrations of performances of the tragedies.

Consideration of John Boydell’s ambitious Shakespeare Gallery, which opened in Pall Mall, London, in 1789, is a primary feature of the exhibition. Boydell, one of the leading publishers of his generation, commissioned more than one hundred canvases illustrating scenes from Shakespeare’s plays from some of the finest British painters of the day. Boydell further sold bound albums of elephantine-size reproductive engravings after the paintings to finance the venture. Two preparatory drawings for this project will be in the exhibition, including a dramatic study in brown wash by Henry Fuseli for his painting The Witches Floating above Macbeth and Banquo. The first volume of Boydell’s enormous publication will also be presented, as well as humorous hand-colored etchings after paintings created by William Bunbury for the Poets Gallery, a rival publishing endeavor begun in 1787.

Henry Fuseli (British, born in Switzerland, 1741–1825), The Witches Floating above Macbeth and Banquo, ca. 1785–90. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over black chalk on two joined sheets of cream laid paper, 46.4 x 61.6 cm. Collection of Frances Beatty  and Allen Adler, Class of 1967Illustrations of nineteenth-century theatrical performances of Shakespeare’s tragedies include lithographs by Eugène Delacroix from a series based on an English production of Hamlet starring Harriet Smithson as Ophelia, performed in Paris in 1827. This was the same production seen by the composer Hector Berlioz, whose obsession with the actress was immortalized in his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830.

“Remember Me”: Shakespeare and His Legacy will be on view in one of the Museum’s galleries of European art, which has been reinstalled for the occasion.

Calvin Brown

Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings