Monday, August 15, 2016

Will & Jane at the Folger Shakespeare Library

It sounds like the title of '90s sitcom, but the exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity at the Folger Shakespeare Library charts the many ways the fans of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have commemorated their favorite authors.

I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibit yesterday at the gorgeous Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit charts the many diverse ways the fans of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have commemorated their love for authors.  The exhibition is timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bards death this year and the upcoming 200th anniversary of Jane's death next year.

Cassandra Austen's (Jane's sister) first edition copy of Emma from 1816.  Cassandra Austen was very proud of her sister's achievements and just the thought that both Jane Austen and Cassandra Austen handled that book gave me chills.

Walt Whitman's copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets that the poet carried in his pocket.  Dating from the Civil War era, I had to wonder if Whitman brought this book with him when he came to Fredericksburg to nurse Union soldiers.

Evelyn Waugh's gilded copy of Jane Austen's  Pride and Prejudice, James Joyce's coffee stained copy of William Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, and Stephen Fry's battered paperback copy of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

Some author's have attempted to cash in on the mania for works connected with William Shakespeare and Jane Austen by producing parodies of the authors famous works.

I agree with this title.

The most popular travesty of all is Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which combined the love for Jane Austen's popular novel with popular culture's fascination with zombies. Hailed as a comic masterpiece by some critics, the funniest lines in the novel come not from the hands of Grahame-Smith, but from Austen.

Not content to simple visit the grave of William Shakespeare at grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford-upon-Avon and the grave of Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral, some fans have taken grave rubbings to bring home with them.

Examples of fan fiction of various quality.  

The works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen has inspired countless movie adaptions.  Some adaptions featured the some actors in different roles as seen here in promotional material for the films Hamlet (1948) and Pride and Prejudice (1940) which both starred Sir Laurence Olivier in the staring roles.

No adaption of Jane Austen's work has inspired as much love and adoration from fans than the 1995 BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice staring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Elhe as Elizabeth Bennet.  Countless female fans swooned over the scene of Mr. Darcy emerging from the pond at Pemberley in a wet shirt. Ironically, this scene which became the most memorable and iconic moment of the series was not in the original novel. 

Of course, I had to have my picture taken next to it.

A selection of covers for the novels of Jane Austen from the 1960's.  While the covers of William Shakespeare's plays and poems are serious and scholarly, the works of Jane Austen have been regulated to the status of "chick lit" with frothy covers of women in bonnets and lots of pink.

Not content with just reading the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, fans have crafted items with the authors and their characters on clothing, jewelry, and accessories.  This case featured a wooden jewelry set carved from a tree mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor from the 19th-century, a silk scarf with Jane Austen's family tree, and an 18th-century silk fan depicting the wedding scene from Henry V.

During World War I and II, the works of William Shakespeare where sent to the front to entertain the soldiers.  Author Rudyard Kipling popularized the term "Janeites" to describe the fans of Jane Austen in story published about a group of English soldiers who read Austen in the trenches of World War I. 

The image of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen has appeared on English stamps and pound notes.  Jane Austen will make her debut on the British 10 pound note next year.

Some fans have been so dedicated to their literary hero that they decided to spend all eternity with them.  The Folger Shakespeare Library was created by Henry and Emily Folger who spent their lives and fortune to purchase rare items connected to William Shakespeare resulting in the Library.  The Folgers who were childless, are interned in the reading room at the Library.  The Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton had had a similar problem with devoted fans requesting that their ashes be scattered in the garden--much to the dismay of the gardener.   

The cults of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen has reached near religious worship.  Pilgrims can tour sites connected to the authors.  On display is a chalice carved from a piece of wood from a tree said to have been planted by William Shakespeare alongside it is a darning egg carved from a piece a wood from a tree that Jane Austen planted in Chawton.  

From William Dean Howell's Criticism and Fiction, where he coined the term "the divine Jane."  A term still in use today within Jane Austen fan culture.


A lock of Jane Austen's hair.

A purported strand of William Shakespeare's hair.

Simple household items found under the floorboards at Jane Austen's home in Chawton testify to the fact that even the humblest items can become relics simple because they were from the house Jane Austen lived in.

 All that remain's from a chair from William Shakespeare's birthplace.

The popularity of the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen depend on creating new fans every generation.  To fill that void, manufactures have produced child friendly adaptions and toys.

Manufactures have also seen that adults are just as eager to purchase objects featuring the image of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen from ceramic figurines, action figures, bobble head doll, sun catchers, and band aids.   

 Actors have become as equally famous as the author in the public imagination for playing one of William Shakespeare's or Jane Austen's characters.  One of the first actors to reach this level of celebrity was the famed 18th-century actor David Garrick's whose image was reproduced in prints and ceramic figurines in the guise of Richard III.  Garrick paid homage to William Shakespeare by posing with a bust of Shakespeare in the 1769 painting shown above.

An example of the products produced with the likeness of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and their characters that fans can purchase.

The bonnet worn by actress Susannah Harker (Jane Bennet) in the 1995 BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice

William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have been used to advertise a variety of products.

A rare 17th/18th-century English pub sign depicting William Shakespeare.  I wonder how many of the pubs patrons where inspired to write awful poems while sipping a pint?

In the 19th-century Victorians collected porclein figurines of William Shakespeare and his characters to adorn their parlors.  Today, Jane Austen has replaced the Bard with companies such as the Franklin Mint producing pricey limited editions.  Like the figurines of David Garrick as Richard III, modern manufactures have copied the likeness of actress Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse and Jennifer Ehle and Elizabeth Bennet.  Though the Elizabeth Bennet figurine looks like she is ready to through the tea cup and saucer across the parlor like a Frisbee; perhaps at Lady Catherine de Bough?   

Both William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have missing chapters in their personal lives.  These gaps have frustrated fans and scholars alike.  To fill these missing areas, fans have created myths and legends surrounding William Shakespeare's and Jane Austen's love lives.  Disturbed that there was no evidence to suggest love between William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, a love letter was forged in the 1790s to give the great romance writer passion in his private life.  Jane Austen's fans have also struggled with Jane Austen's spinsterhood and the 2007 film Becoming Jane staring actress Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen presented the fictionalized interpretation of the authors real life relationship with Tom Lefroy.  

Jane Austen was also a fan of William Shakespeare, growing up in the years following the mania surrounding the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1769.  In the original letter above, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra Austen describing her attendance of a performance of  The Merchant of Venice on 5 March 1814 in London.  Ironically, she is staying on Hamilton Street.

William Shakespeare and Jane Austen share many similarities, including the fact that we are not 100 percent sure what they actually looked like.  No image of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime is known to exist.  The first recorded image was produced in 1623 on the title page of the First Folio, the first printed collection of Shakespeare's plays.  Jane Austen suffered from a similar problem.  Only one image of Jane Austen taken in life is known to exist.  A rather unflattering pen and ink drawing done by Cassandra Austen.  The image was dolled up in the 1870's when Jane Austen's nephew published his memoir of his famous aunt.  Since then artist have been inspired to produce their own images of the authors.

The exhibit colludes with an examination of Jane Austen's love of the theater,  Handwritten script of Sir Charles Grandison testified to the Austen's family love of amateur theatricals.  Jane Austen's script is displayed next to actress Emma Thompson's script from the 1995 movie Sense and Sensibility.

Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity is a delightful exhibit full of surprises. With 2017 marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, her cult of celebrity is gearing up for even more movies, books, and products devoted to the author that many call Jane.

Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity is on display from August 6, 2016-November 6, 2016.