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Notes on an Exhibition - Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

A Pre-Raphaelite painting from the Toledo Museum of Art's collection, used as the feature image for the exhibition Shakespeare's Character's: Playing the Part (Sept. 2 - Jan. 8). It shows a young red-headed woman (Ophelia?) holding a bouquet of flowers, one arm lifted and looking over her left shoulder.

2016 has seen a wealth of Shakespeare-related programming, performances, carefully timed book releases, and even a special hashtag, all in observance of the 400-year anniversary of the Bard's death in April 1616. Now that the dust of this international ferment has more or less settled, the Toledo Museum of Art offers up its own variation on the theme, with Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part. Promising to "bring the beloved writer's works to life", this exhibition engages visitors well beyond the works and their iconic roles, where the characters serve as diverse points of entry into a multidisciplinary exploration of Shakespeare's far-reaching influence.

A 16th-century painting of a young Queen Elizabeth in full regalia, with an ornate gilded frame from the same period.

My immediate impression upon entering the gallery chosen for this exhibition was its scale. The blurb simply does not prepare you for the variety of materials on display, much of it meticulously culled from the Museum's own collection. Unfortunately, the space allotted to such an extensive array does not do the exhibition justice, particularly given its current popularity. Visiting on a Wednesday afternoon, an unlikely rush hour, I found myself jostled more than once out of that prime viewing territory each museum-goer stakes out before the respective works, unable to contemplate them at my leisure. Soon, a crowd streamed in to listen to the exhibition curator discuss her choices, and the small size of the room became even more apparent.

Spatial constraints notwithstanding, one could happily spend hours of discovery in this gallery alone. (Yet for those who do feel claustrophobic, a handy exhibition guide is available containing detailed directions to other works with a Shakespeare connection scattered throughout the Museum's collection.) The exhibition demands much of its viewers. This is to be expected when its subject is a playwright. Text abounds, whether in the copious labels accompanying each piece, on the wall decal of that oft-quoted line "All the world's a stage...", or in the printed and bound plays themselves, exhibited under glass and open to key passages. Nevertheless, this text is precisely what fulfills the exhibition's stated purpose of animating Shakespeare's enduring characters. Beside each artistic portrayal of a given character, the label contains the role's most memorable lines, so that the static image comes to life and speaks to viewers across the centuries.

Shakespeare's 2nd Folio cradled in a book stand and viewed under glass at the exhibition.

That alone would make Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part a resounding success. For such is the challenge of Shakespeare four-hundred years on. As aficionados are well aware, and as the exhibition makes clear, the First Folio was not printed until after the Bard's death. (Then came the Second Folio, a copy of which is on display and was, for me, a highlight.) Despite the numerous stagings and cinematic portrayals which have intervened, what was originally an immediate and dynamic performance has since become distanced. Shakespeare did not compose for the page. But it is only through the cold text of the printed Folios that we have access to the ephemeral performances. Like the man who resurrected mythical figures and historical heroes only to himself become the stuff of myth, Shakespeare's characters have transformed the cultural lexicon, but at what cost? Four centuries of reinterpretations, all sifting together in our collective memory, risk burying these lively personages, preserving them immobile in the amber of their iconic monologues. Pairing textual excerpts with artistic representations of dramatic scenes and complex figures represents a new and multifaceted approach to Shakespearean appreciation, allowing visitors to participate in a sort of aesthetic dialogue across place and time.

A white marble bust of Julius Caesar, with cropped hair as was the ancient Roman style, sitting inside a glass case at the exhibition.

And here is where the exhibition surpasses its stated objective. Because in its assemblage of paintings, lithographs, photographs, pottery, and other material artifacts, the characters do far more than speak. Thanks to the curator's painstaking connections, they function more like ambassadors negotiating art's conversation with art. A marble bust of Julius Caesar from about 50 CE, accompanied by the famous Act III, Scene I betrayal ("Et tu, Brute!"), sits beside a 2009 Murano glass mirror from American artist Fred Wilson (glass being the Museum's specialty), titled "Iago's mirror" and accompanied by Iago's Act I, Scene I profession, "But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at. I am not what I am." Arthur Hughes' Pre-Raphaelite imagining of Ophelia, whose label details a fascinating discovery on the back of the painting, faces an early sixteenth-century Italian maiolica plate depicting Pyramus and Thisbe, characters portrayed by the actor-characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream's meta-drama. This latter self-referential example in particular calls attention to Shakespeare's plays as artistic creations - conversant with a daunting array of other works of art - which themselves became sources of inspiration for artists of succeeding generations. To chip away at the inter-textual palimpsest could prove daunting. Yet, in spotlighting Shakespeare's characters, this exhibition gives visitors a point of reference, a base from which to explore the circuitous lines of influence radiating across civilization.

Perhaps the exhibition did not need to bring Shakespeare's characters to life. Because, despite the passing of four centuries, this year's plethora of Shakespearean tributes show us that his characters are alive and well in popular culture. But Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part offers us one of the most convincing answers to why and how these compelling figures continue to speak to us.

Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part

Toledo Museum of Art

September 2, 2016 - January 8, 2017

Gallery 6, free admission

Blog post and exhibition photos © Amanda Sarasien 2016

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