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Seeing What Shakespeare Means

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Seeing What Shakespeare Means

April 3 through August 21, 1999


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Imagining Shakespeare
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Understanding Shakespeare's language is not always easy. Four hundred years of "static" intervene between his writing and our reading and hearing. While most of Shakespeare's immense vocabulary is still in use, and many ideas and figures to which he refers are still part of our culture, some of his words and references seem foreign to us. Fortunately, books from Shakespeare's time contain woodcuts and engravings that give us ways of literally seeing what Shakespeare means. This exhibition draws from the Folger's rich collections of early books, highlighting images that illuminate Shakespeare's text and that have been used to aid readers of the The New Folger Library Shakespeare.


Only through pictures can we visualize many of the objects, places, pastimes, and customs of Shakespeare's everyday life. These include the male attire of doublet and hose, the cattle markets of Eastcheap, and the sports of bearbaiting and bowls. Pictures also let us see how Shakespeare and his contemporaries imagined the world. Their education was very different from our own, with their time in school devoted almost exclusively to the classics - texts in Latin and Greek that often featured mythological subjects. It was thus natural for Shakespeare to present or allude to the harpy and the phoenix, Leander and Hercules, Cupid and Diana, whose images appear in the exhibition. Pictures also illuminate much of the conventional wisdom quoted in Shakespeare's plays. We can understand many of Shakespeare's lines with lightning speed if we have the right visual images before us - if, for example, we can see the figure of Time as he "goes on crutches" or see a picture of the world "going on wheels." This exhibition presents a sample of the Folger's vast holdings of the visual arts of Shakespeare's day and thus makes visible much of Shakespeare's remarkable language.

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