Shakespeare: Metamorphosis

I was delighted to attend the press launch this evening of the University of London’s first major exhibiton, Shakespeare: Metamorphosis.

Launched ahead of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (23 April), Shakespeare: Metamorphosis will run between 14 April and 17 September at Senate House Library.

The whole building has been transformed into a wonderful mosaic of quote and colour, as the Bard takes centre stage at the University of London.

Shakespeare 400 Senate House

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis is themed around the ‘seven ages of man’ speech from As You Like It.

The rare texts on display chart the journey from Shakespeare’s contemporaries and influences, including Chaucer and Holinshed, to the digital age, via the production of the four folios (1623-1685), the Neoclassical dawn of Shakespeare scholarship, and the age of the aesthetic.

Witnessing a first folio still feels like the epicentre of any scholarly endeavour, and in the month where a ‘new’ folio was authenticated on the Isle of Bute, it remains the centrepiece on display.

Shakespeare 400 First Folio, Senate House Library

But it’s fabulous too to see Restoration folios, such as that produced by Sir William Davenant, one of the two theatrical overlords of the 1660s.

Davenant’s revision of Hamlet, probably one of his last literary achievements, is striking for its sheer audacity in condensing Shakespeare’s play.

As charted by Andrew Dickson and others, Shakespeare is a completely global phenomenon, and there is much to be gained from understanding the reception and the cultural adaption of his works all over the world.

One of the most striking items on display, even if less ostensibly valuable, is a 1957 letter from Dr Richard Flatter to Dr John Pafford, then Librarian at Goldsmiths.

Shakespeare Metamorphosis: Dr Richard Flatter

Flatter emigrated from Austria to England in 1938 and was soon deported to an internment camp in Australia. During his detainment, he continued to translate Shakespeare – the only text he could access – into German.

The mistaken assumption that he was German marred the reception of his book, Shakespeare’s Producing Hand, released shortly after the end of the second World War, and it is only recently that his reputation has been defended.

But Flatter clearly enjoyed a scholarly tussle, especially over the issue of authorship and attribution, and he is seen in agitated form with Pafford, who appears sceptical over his claims.

“Why do you want me to mix a cocktail for you when you are firmly determined not to drink it?” he bemoans?

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis - Midsummer Night's Dream Hoeppner

Other striking items include a beautiful volume of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This features charming illustrations from the decorative hand of Julius Hoeppner.

Bringing the whole concept together, the actor Paterson Joseph narrates the ‘seven ages’ scene from the lofty rooftop of Senate House and elsewhere in the iconic building, bringing a good dose of humour to the mix.

As free exhibitions go, this has plenty to satisfy the insatiable appetite for rare Shakespeare memorabilia this season.

However, there’s no masking that a display of books behind glass cases is austere and traditional. The University of London has done well to make this about more than simply flashing its finest goods.

Once you’ve seen the sights in Senate House and heard the muttered recitations from passers by, you realise that it has built an atmosphere.

As a early modernist who often feels a little outcast in his non-academic role, I now feel right at home.

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, Senate House Library Visual Display

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