I went to see the exhibition By Me William Shakespeare, held at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, part of King’s College London, before it closed. The exhibition was an opportunity to view Shakespeare’s will, as well as other documents relating to his life. It incorporated research, scientific analysis and a digital installation, with the nine “most nationally important” documents selected by academics from the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s and specialists from the National Archives.
Although the exhibition doesn’t sound like much, consisting as it does of nine documents, the curators have done a great job illuminating what they all mean and exploring the context. Documents on display include Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament (he famously left his wife the “second best bed”, though the exhibition does make clear this was not necessarily the snub it is thought to be), as well as those that include four of his six known signatures. One document refers to the infamous incident when Richard Burbage and Shakespeare dismantled the Theatre in Shoreditch and rowed it across the Thames, where they rebuilt it as the Globe. Another concerns the dowry dispute in which Shakespeare was involved because he lodged in the house of the family concerned.
As a lover of Shakespeare, this exhibition was a real treat for me and I enjoyed it, although non-fans may find it a bit dry.
I managed to catch the King’s College exhibition about Byron just in time – it closes on Wednesday. The exhibition is displayed in the beautiful Weston Room, part of the Maughan Library, and was curated by the Foyle Special Collections Library of King’s College London and the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland, for the 39th International Byron Conference in July (there’s an International Byron Conference! How awesome!).
I wanted to see the exhibition for two main reasons. One: it is full of manuscripts and rare books, which are always interesting. Two: it’s Byron! I have a bit of an obsession with the man, so there was no way I was going to miss this.
‘Byron and politics’ takes a slightly different look at the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet’s life, focusing on his political life and bringing together manuscripts, letters, printed editions and several of Byron’s personal possessions. The exhibition explores the contradictions in the poet’s thought and life: he hated the ruling Tory party but also disliked their opponents the Whigs; he was an aristocrat with a seat in the House of Lords, yet he spoke up for the poor and needy, notably in his Parliamentary speech in which he championed the cause of the Nottinghamshire Luddites; he was in love with the idea of democracy yet refused to admit the poor he knew to be capable of taking part in it. Byron greatly admired Napoleon and was overwhelmingly disappointed when he chose exile over a ‘noble death’. He himself met his end in Missolonghi, Greece, fighting for the cause of Greek independence.
For someone whose reputation is of a wild, wicked, immoral and frivolous poet, Byron’s deep engagement with the political issues of the day are something of a revelation. This aspect of his life shows, perhaps, a deeper side to his character and a more serious one. He also seems to have had a strong sympathetic understanding of the less fortunate, though ultimately he refused to side with any one party or way of thinking, preferring to form his own views. I took a copy of the exhibition guide, so that I can revisit this aspect of Byron’s life in the future.