28 October 2016
Zoë Wilcox (left), lead curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts holds a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. Photo: Clare Kendall
Zoë Wilcox (left), lead curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts holds a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. Photo: Clare Kendall

All the world’s a stage as British Library salutes the Bard

Imagine yourself being a writer in 16th century England.

You would have to shoot at the stars to get your work published, unless you were extremely famous or your writing was a piece of theology or history.

William Shakespeare patiently waited his turn, which is why the world is a repository of his unparalleled body of work and we all get to say “To be or not to be…”

Shakespeare’s only surviving manuscript in his own handwriting, The Book of Sir Thomas More, dates back to the 1600s.

It’s an Elizabethan play and a dramatic biography based on the life of the Catholic martyr Thomas More, who would become the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII.

Fittingly, the British Library in London is marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with an exhibition of his works.

Shakespeare: Ten Acts, which pays tribute to 10 best-loved and most widely adapted Shakespeare plays, runs until Sept. 6.

Visitors can glimpse The Book of Sir Thomas More, as well as Shakespeare’s first folio, showing the significance of his works even in those days.

Then, a folio was a costly undertaking.

Because of the size, very few writers were able to produce a folio edition of their works important enough to be published.

Folios were the exception and religious and historical writings were the norm.

The exhibit also shows items in film and stage adaptations of Shakespearean plays such as Kenneth Branagh’s script of Hamlet and Vivien Leigh’s costume as Lady Macbeth designed by Roger Furse and worn for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth in 1955.

The theatrical aesthetics of Shakespeare’s works are highlighted from a display of stage props — a dark lantern, a cannonball from an excavation at Rose Theatre and something that might have been used for The Tempest.

The play Othello is represented by a display that relives the controversy around the black actor Ira Aldridge who was chosen to play the part in 1825.

Aldridge left New York for Liverpool at the age of 17 and was the first black actor to play the role on stage in Britain.

It had taken 200 years for a black Othello to appear onstage since the play was written.

The earliest of Shakespeare’s manuscripts translated into different languages are also on display.

These include a copy of As You Like It, translated into Chinese by the eminent scholar Liang Shih-chiu.

What distinguishes Shakespeare from other leading playwrights of the time was the sheer popularity of his works and the level of scholarship that has been generated worldwide, from Elizabethan times to the present.

The British Library has a new online resource on Shakespeare’s life and works at

A browse through Twitter with the hashtag Shakespeare400 will unearth intriguing resources about the Bard.

Why Shakespeare still lives on 400th anniversary of his death (Jan. 5, 2016)

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Vivien Leigh is shown as Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Old VicTheatre in 1937. Photo: J W Debenham

Alan Howard and Sara Kestelman (from left) appear in Peter Brook’s 1970 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Reg Wilson © Royal Shakespeare Company

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