Shakespeare in Print – Guildhall Library

I popped out in my lunch hour on Wednesday to visit the Shakespeare in Print exhibition at the Guildhall Library. This looks at the history of printing William Shakespeare’s plays, from late sixteenth century quartos to seventeenth century folios, the reworked versions of the eighteenth century and the rediscovery and popularity of the originals in the nineteenth. I wanted to go on a Wednesday as this was the only day of the week on which the Library’s original First Folio is displayed – a facsimile is on view at all other times. This First Folio was acquired around 1760 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and purchased for the London Institution in 1806; it was transferred to the Guildhall Library in 1912. It is supposed to be one of the five finest copies in existence.

The First Folio dates from 1623; it contains almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. One exception is Pericles, which was only added to the Second Folio. In addition, several early copies of the First Folio do not contain Troilus and Cressida. The First Folio was the result of Shakespeare’s followers and admirers gathering together several years after his death to combine, edit and publish his plays. This is part of the reason Shakespeare’s works are so well known today: it was uncommon for plays to be printed in the sixteenth century, as it could damage the original company’s profits if another company got hold of a written text and started performing it. Shakespeare himself probably did not authorise any such publication in his lifetime. It’s just as well the First Folio was published, as it is the earliest printed version of around half of Shakespeare’s plays, including MacbethJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Without the First Folio, these plays may have been lost.

The First Folio was followed by the Second, Third and Fourth Folios as Shakespeare remained popular. As plays became accepted as serious literature, other works were published during this time, and the exhibition holds some examples of these, including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (recently performed at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and the works of Benjamin Johnson.

During the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was often adapted heavily to suit the tastes of the time. For instance, Macbeth was performed with songs (I would love to see this) and as a ‘travestie’ version – a spoof in two acts (I would also love to see this). During the Victorian era, Shakespeare began to take on the iconic status he still has today and theatre-makers began to go back to the original texts and study Shakespeare more seriously. ‘Variorum’ editions of the works – editions including all known variants of a text, including notes – began to be produced, and gift books, such as the ‘Library Shakespeare’ on display, were common.

The exhibition didn’t just contain books: there was also a dress worn by Juliet Rylance in the Globe’s 2005 production of  The Winter’s Tale, which was made by the Original Practices Clothing Archive. Overall, this was a small but fascinating free exhibition and I’m glad I made the effort to go, even though it meant a bit of a rush during lunch!

Byron and politics: ‘born for opposition’ – King’s College London

Manuscript of Byron’s ‘Detached Thoughts’, number 84, NLS Ms.43352

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.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – British Library

The British Library always puts on good exhibitions and the new one, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is no exception. I visited on Saturday and found it an enlightening experience.

I know very little about India; in fact most of my literary, historical and cultural interests are very Western-based so I hoped this exhibition would give me the chance to broaden my horizons. The Mughals ruled India for over three hundred years, from 1526 when Henry VIII was on the throne in England until 1858, the time of the early Victorian era. I am roughly familiar with the progress of British, and to a lesser extent European, history during this period, but my knowledge of Asian history of this (or any) period is slim.

I found it interesting that the Mughals were an Islamic dynasty, but those over whom they ruled were mostly Hindus. By and large, according to the exhibition, rulers exercised religious tolerance. This helped to keep the peace throughout the empire and fostered debates on different aspects of religion. Geographically, the empire at its height spanned a large and diverse area, including most of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The first Mughal emperor was Babur (1483-1530), who came from Samarquand (modern Uzbekistan) to conquer Kabul, Lahore and Delhi. Descended from Genghis Khan and Timur, the emperors adopted Persian as their cultural and administrative language.

There were fifteen major emperors over the years: traditionally the early six emperors are known as the ‘Great’ Mughals, famed for their expansion of the empire and their commissioning of great buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Delhi Red Fort. I found it difficult to get my head around all the different emperors, but a central part of the exhibition displays pictures and artefacts relating to each emperor in chronological order. I found this very handy to help me work out who was who and give me some insight into the achievements and character of each emperor.

The exhibition was divided into sections, looking at life in Mughal India, painting, religion, literature, science and medicine. Images and artefacts were displayed clearly, and there were numerous books and other examples of writing, as you might expect from an exhibition at the British Library. I thought the art was incredibly beautiful, very different to the Western style of painting, colourful and vivid. I found it particularly interesting to see paintings of British and other European visitors in this style, which were in great contrast to the paintings you see in places like the National Gallery. One of the most unusual pictures was of one of the emperors engaged in some bedroom fun with a mistress: I found it very bizarre that an emperor would agree to being painted in such a compromising position!

Of course I couldn’t read works in Persian or other languages of the empire, but I found the descriptive cards next to them to be good sources of information. Many rulers were patrons of literature and several wrote poetry or kept diaries themselves. I found the works on science extremely fascinating: great advances were made through the study of the sciences, in medicine for example. Geography and astronomy were especially important and the Mughals were also influenced by astrology.

The empire began to reduce in size over time and towards its end covered only the area of the Delhi Red Fort. The dynasty came to an end in 1858 after the failed Uprising against the British East India Company.

I really enjoyed this exhibition. It was very different to what I am used to but I found it fascinating, and once again I feel I learned something.