Everyone, it seems, is celebrating Shakespeare, this being the 400th anniversary of the Stratford man’s death. (Even Oxfordians are getting props as part of the Boston Public Library’s thrilling panorama.) The BPL is showing historical films, hosting myriad performances and for the very first time, exhibiting the exceedingly rare Thomas Barton collection of precious First, Second, Third and Fourth Folios as well as the infamous will and testament (the one that mentions his “second best bed” and no manuscripts!). Their “Shakespeare Unauthorized” Exhibit will run through March of 2017. All free and open to the public!
In an increasingly bookless age, the BPL is offering a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Bard’s world and his legacy first hand. You’ll see the many versions of his plays and many mentions of them in books by his contemporaries. Then you can place the work in topographical context in the library’s map gallery, where an exhibit highlights the locales of the plays, almost half of them in Italy. You can peruse authentic 16th century depictions of the globe as Elizabethan mapmakers imagined it.
Local companies like Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Bridge Rep, Company One and Boston Lyric Opera are contributing classes, lectures and performances. Esteemed playwright Ken Ludwig will visit Boston in May to speak about introducing Shakespeare to children, having won the Falstaff Award for best Shakespeare Book of 2014 about instilling a love of Shakespeare in the very young. In addition to the central exhibits, Shakespeare performances will travel to the BPL Branches: Celebrated Walt Whitman lecturer/impersonator, Stephen Collins, turns his attention to the characters in Shakespeare and takes his moveable feast from BPL Central to the West End, North End, Dorchester and W. Roxbury branches, among others, from October through March.
You can explore the birds mentioned in Shakespeare and those you will find here in Boston, or you can learn about the influence of classical literature on Shakespeare’s writings: Many of his plots were lifted in toto from Italian and Greek texts! You can enjoy Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies—and you even can hear Shakespeare translated into hip hop! Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the BPL’s exhibit is the exploration of the debate over what Shakespeare actually wrote… and who really wrote the most treasured canon in Western literature.
NOTHING IS TRUER THAN TRUTH is Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s film (screened last week at the BPL) about Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, a favorite at Queen Elizabeth’s court, versed in the law, medicine, Greek and Latin, who traveled to Italy and beyond, learning about commedia dell’ arte and collecting the experiences which are told in the Shakespeare plays. Renowned Shakespeare scholars in the film, including Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, present a preponderance of evidence to link Oxford (known to Elizabethans for his pseudonym, “Shake-speare”) to the works.
Donovan’s film mentions, among other evidence, that deVere’s Geneva Bible has his own notes in the margins indicating verses he would use in his plays. His travels took him to Titian’s salon where he saw the master’s first rendering of the painting, Venus and Adonis, inspiring him to write about it, in detail, including features which disappear in Titian’s final version. The man from Stratford, who never traveled outside of England, could not have known about the painting’s early features.
Computer analysis, unavailable to early Oxfordians like Emerson, Whitman, Twain and Freud, can now make the case that the Earl of Oxford is the true author. Because of the strides in Shakespeare research, more and more books and films are chronicling the life of deVere. Who would have imagined the excitement that now surrounds the work four hundred years later!
Of all the performances swirling around the 400th anniversary, perhaps the most unexpected so far, and the most fun by far, was last weekend’s SHAKESPEARE IN SONG, presented by American Classics. You might think they’d be performing songs from the Elizabethan era, did you not know that American Classics is devoted to the American Songbook… So with Shakespeare as inspiration, they embraced WEST SIDE STORY (of course) and KISS ME, KATE (to be sure) but also THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE and an obscure little show called GRAB ME A GONDOLA (Who knew?).
Highlights were Eric Bronner’s breathy, breathtaking “Maria” and Ben Sears’ melancholy, heartbreaking “So in Love am I” (with Brad Conner’s gorgeous phrasing underneath). Caroline Musica waltzed through “I Feel Pretty” and Cynthia Mork and Sears delivered the exquisite “One Hand, One Heart.” Mork’s lovely, ethereal “Somewhere” was lifted by Carol Epple’s lilting flute and Elizabeth Connors’ supple clarinet. And it wouldn’t have been right to neglect those adorable thugs from New York. As the lyrics insist, we were indeed “wowed” when they sang “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!”