More than other literary favorites, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen are cultural stars, celebrities on a first-name basis with the reading public who enjoy robust followings centuries after their deaths.
The literary giants are the subjects of “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity,” an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library that promises to examine the similarities between the authors with humor and insight.
The exhibition, which opens Aug. 6 and runs through Nov. 6 in the Great Hall at the Folger, is part of the museum’s “Wonder of Will” year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It also comes just a year before the 200th celebration of Austen’s death.
The timing is striking, say curators Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub, since Austen witnessed the first wave of Shakespeare’s celebrity 200 years ago, just as now the world is caught up in the Cult of Jane.
“Some of the parallels between the development of Shakespeare 200 years ago and the celebration of Austen today surprised even us,” said Barchas, professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “When you put an object from the Folger vault next to objects from collectors or purchased on eBay . . . you really recognize celebrity culture is not a Justin Bieber event but something that has roots in history much further back.”
The exhibition features portraits of the writers, rare editions of their work, precious relics and low-cost mementos of works associated with them. On display will be a playbill from a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” that Austen attended starring legendary actor Edmund Kean and a letter in her own hand describing what she saw.
But there will also be objects from the award-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” and the white shirt worn by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.”
The goal is to prod viewers into considering the role that marketing and material goods play in the authors’ celebrity.
“Of course they are great writers, nobody is disputing that; but their greatness has a lot to do . . . with the way they circulate in popular culture,” said Straub, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “My interests have always been on the trashy side. I’m interested in the way the [demarcation of] high and low culture doesn’t make sense.”
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