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Shakespeare & Beyond

Collecting Will and Jane

One of the stories told by the current exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity is that literary renown is as much about commodities as about books. Literary celebrity transforms authors into objects.

Our exhibition traces this commodification to the eighteenth century, when Shakespeare (like Austen now) was at the 200-year mark of his literary afterlife and when the first trickle of tourists to Stratford-Upon-Avon prompted a modest trade in early souvenirs. Many of these items were crafted from the wood of a famous mulberry tree said to have been planted by Shakespeare himself.

Today, we do not need to travel to the gift shops of Stratford (and, for Austen fans, Chawton or Bath) to buy all manner of non-book objects embossed, carved, or printed with the faces of our beloved author and the fictional characters who live so powerfully in our imaginations. Over time, wood and ceramics may have given way to plastic and resin, but the consumer impulse for collectibles has remained constant. Fans still itch to lift their enjoyment off the page (or stage) and take a little bit of Will and Jane home with them.

From the eighteenth century onward, fans have brought Shakespeare home in the form of objects to decorate mantelpieces, roll out pastry, hold drinks, and even to wear. Today, Austen’s characters can be used to sprinkle salt at table, while her own image (and that of Mr. Darcy) can be seen on everything from clothing to tea towels.  When old Shakespeare souvenirs from the Folger’s art vault are placed next to Austen items advertised on Etsy or Amazon, the juxtaposition makes clear that the merchandizing of celebrities is not a recent phenomenon.