Days after arriving in London in 1603, King James I issues a warrant naming Shakespeare’s acting troupe The King’s Men. A law student summarizes his favorite plot device from “Twelfth Night” in a diary entry from 1602. A vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon describes Shakespeare as “a natural wit without any art at all,” and an early critic calls him an “upstart crow.”
The Folger Shakespeare Library uses these and a host of other rare documents — many never before shown in the United States — to create a surprisingly intimate portrait of the world’s most famous author. With primary documents dating from his lifetime and just after his death, “Shakespeare, Life of an Icon” examines Shakespeare’s career as poet and playwright and looks at his fast-rising reputation and how he was viewed by his contemporaries.
“We want it to be the King Tut exhibition for Shakespeare,” said Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts. “I hope visitors are amazed by how many documents survive showing people responding to Shakespeare and his works in his own lifetime.”
On view through March 27 in the library’s Great Hall, the exhibition is part of “The Wonder of Will,” a year-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Through December, the Folger will present special programs and performances that explore the author’s life and his world.
Among the highlights is “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare,” an exhibition that will bring a copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works to all 50 states. The Folger owns 82 of the 233 surviving copies of the 1623 book, the original printed source of 18 Shakespeare plays.
“Life of an Icon” examines the author as poet, playwright and man, as well as icon. It includes the only surviving copy of the first edition of “Titus Andronicus,” the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be printed; the only existing letter written to Shakespeare, although never sent; and a section of a play thought to be written in his own hand.
It offers a glimpse of Shakespeare’s personality — including several stories of cavorting with fellow playwright Ben Jonson and other pals — and examines his reputation during his life and after his death.
Little time is spent on whether Shakespeare actually wrote all the plays attributed to him. It’s a question that has been around for centuries, Wolfe said. “There are no documents that suggest another writer, but there are many that are unambiguous about what he wrote,” she said.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Folger has launched shakespearedocumented.org, a website displaying 400 print and manuscripts documents. Working with 30 institutions in the United States and Britain, the library has created the most authoritative resource of primary sources focused on Shakespeare’s life and career. Intended for scholars, teachers and the general public, the website allows visitors to search a wide range of documents with references and allusions to Shakespeare and his work during his lifetime and in the years after his death.
“The Wonder of Will” continues with “America’s Shakespeare,” opening April 7, and “Will and Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity,” opening in August.