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Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

January 19—March 27, 2016
Event Description

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. After more than four centuries, a surprising number of documents referring or alluding to Shakespeare survive.

Curated by Heather Wolfe, Folger Curator of Manuscripts, 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. These records give us a firsthand look at the most famous author in the world.

This is a “treasures” exhibition: each item is a standout in a different way. A sampling includes: the only surviving copy of the first edition of the first Shakespeare play to be printed, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s copy of the bargain and sale for his purchase of a residence in Blackfriars near the winter theatre of the King’s Men; Shakespeare’s copy of the final concord for his purchase of New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon; the draft “letters patent” authorizing a coat of arms for Shakespeare’s father, and subsequently Shakespeare; a fragment of a bookseller’s list which includes one of Shakespeare’s “lost” plays, Love’s Labors Won; a section of play thought to in Shakespeare’s own handwriting; the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare; and the earliest references to Shakespeare as a playwright and a poet.

The only known account of Shakespeare's death, also included in the exhibition, is a word-of-mouth tale written in a diary nearly 50 years later by John Ward, vicar of Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died of a fever, Ward wrote in the early 1660s, after a "merry meeting" with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Among other references to Shakespeare, Ward made a familiar-sounding note to himself: "remember to peruse Shakespear's plays and bee versed in them that I may not bee ignorant in that matter."

If you would like to learn more about the materials included in Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, consider our related Family Programs, lectures, and other public events during the exhibition. For a sampling of some of the items in the exhibition, take a look at our online image gallery for the exhibition.