"We wanted to do something special for 2014 to celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday," says Georgianna Ziegler, curator of Shakespeare's the Thing and the Louis B. Thalheimer head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library. "My idea was that it ought to be fun. It's like opening up the Folger vault, all of the weird, funny, wonderful stuff as to how people related to Shakespeare. You can open it like opening a birthday present. What's inside?" The exhibition, she says, is also a look at "Shakespeare through things—the things that people have created about him and their ideas of him."
Those things, of course, are wide-ranging. Among other examples, Ziegler points to the forger William Henry Ireland's faked love letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, complete with a lock of real hair; a Shakespeare-themed Barbie; the Seven Ages of Man cards once given out by a soap company; early Shakespeare editions, beginning in 1709; and several translations, including Hamlet in Sanskrit and "beautifully illustrated" Shakespeare plays in Russian and Czech.
A copy of the iconic 1623 First Folio appears here, too, with a focus on the title-page portrait of Shakespeare. While the First Folio through the 1685 Fourth Folio were printed, the engraving was repeatedly touched up, creating four distinct variations, or states. "In all the time I've been here," says Ziegler, "we've never shown all four states before. We used two Folios and two single leafs for the exhibition, all originals."
To assemble and shape this diverse mix, Ziegler and exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri began with suggestions from the Folger staff. "It was crowdsourced," Ziegler says. "We asked what items they were fascinated by in the collection." Replies came from the specialists who work with the collection every day, and from other staff members as well. Their proposed selections inspired the exhibition's four themes: fixating on, printing, performing, and depicting Shakespeare. Each is identified with a banner in the exhibition hall. "You can do them in any order," says Ziegler, "or wander at will."
Where possible, Ziegler favored "things that were eye-catching," she explains, including designs by Salvador Dali for As You Like It and works by Wyndham Lewis for Timon of Athens, a suggestion by Folger development director Essence Newhoff. "We paired that one with Frank Mowery's book binding for the Folger 60th anniversary in 1992, which is also in a geometric, modernist style. They seemed to go together, and they look well."
Folger Theatre artistic director Janet Griffin proposed "the Jean Hugo designs for a French production of Romeo and Juliet in the 1920s," Ziegler says. "I had shown that book when Janet had visitors to the library." In the exhibition audio tour, Griffin describes the stunning 1924 Paris production, "just eight years before the Folger opened," in which costumes with "iridescent linear designs glowed under what I suspect was the equivalent of black light—quite a psychedelic experience."
Ziegler also notes the special appeal of a copy of an 1886 Paris edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which watercolors cover the text. "It's an amazing book; every page is painted. It's really quite beautiful." The artist Pinckney Marcius-Simons "was fascinated by Wagner's idea of uniting music, literature, and the arts," she explains, so he painted directly on the printed play. The art book has been fully digitized for the exhibition, so that visitors can explore the pages through an on-site display. "We wanted to look at the whole book. I think 'luscious' is the word for it," Ziegler says. "It's really a luscious book."