Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

Jan 20 – Mar 27, 2016

We will never have a photograph of William Shakespeare or a recording of his voice, but we can catch glimpses of the man in this stunning array of documents from his own lifetime.

Check out behind-the-scenes footage from the exhibition in "The Making of a Folger Exhibition: Time-lapse Installation of Shakespeare, Life of an Icon."

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon brings together some of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare's life and career, drawn from the Folger collection and other major British and US institutions. Among them: deeds recording Shakespeare's real estate purchases, drafts of the heraldic grant of arms that he helped his father to obtain, diary entries about seeing his plays and buying his works, and quick takes on Shakespeare's fast-rising reputation—from disdained, "upstart crow" in 1592, to the "sweet swan of Avon," as his friend Ben Jonson describes him in the preliminary material to the first edition of Shakespeare's collected works, the 1623 First Folio.

Seen together, these glimpses provide a fresh and intimate perspective on the most famous author in the world.

Part of The Wonder of Will, a Folger celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare



Curator of Manuscripts and Archivist

This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the British Council.

Love's Labour's Lost is the first known printed play to appear with Shakespeare’s name on the title page: “Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.”

Titus Andronicus was one of the first Shakespeare plays to be printed, and one of his most popular. The one seen here is a unique surviving copy.

Around 1602, Shakespeare concluded the purchase of New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford-on-Avon. Seen here are Shakespeare’s copy (buyer) and Hercules Underhill’s copy (seller) of the final concord for the purchase.

This 1592 text, Greenes, groats-vvorth of witte, contains the earliest known allusion to Shakespeare as a playwright. Shakespeare is described as a “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” (referring to a line in 3 Henry VI), an “upstart Crow,” and “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” The Folger holds one of only two surviving copies.

The diary of physician and vicar John Ward contains the only known account of Shakespeare’s death. On March 6, 1662/63 he writes, “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a fever there contracted.”

Several other references to Shakespeare are in this volume, including the memorandum "rememb[e]r to peruse Shakespear’s plays and bee versed in [the]m [tha]t I may not bee ignorant in [tha]t matter." 

Meet the Curator

Curator of Manuscripts and Archivist

Heather Wolfe is curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has curated numerous Folger exhibitions and has written widely on early modern manuscripts and the intersections between print and manuscript. She has edited The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 (2007), The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary (2007), and Letterwriting in Renaissance England (2004), an exhibition catalog co-written with Alan Stewart.  She is principal investigator for EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online), a project to create a free and searchable database of images and transcriptions of early modern manuscripts created in England or written in English, and curator of the forthcoming online exhibition, Shakespeare Documented, a repository of images, descriptions, and transcriptions of documents and printed texts that refer or allude to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s works, and Shakespeare’s family in their lifetimes.