Design for Shakespeare across the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

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SBT Research Conversation, Wednesday 14 June

By Ella Hawkins, Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham)



Photograph by Victoria Joynes

On Wednesday 14th June, I gave the third talk in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s ‘Research Conversations’ series. I’m currently completing a PhD in design for Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), and have been collaborating with the Trust over the past five months as a Research Advocate. My role at the SBT has involved exploring the Trust’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections, identifying possible future research projects, and disseminating my findings through a variety of channels. In this talk, I used items from the Collections to discuss major developments in design for Shakespeare from 1599 through to 2017. My primary focus was on the changing significance of Elizabethan and Jacobean (or ‘Jacobethan’) aesthetics across the past four centuries, and how variations in this approach to design can be read to reveal wider developments in the cultural significance of Shakespeare’s life and works.


Original playing practices

I began by considering how Shakespeare’s plays may have been costumed when they were first performed at the turn of the 17th century. Although evidence of original performance practices is extremely limited, surviving documents suggest that players performed wearing primarily the clothing of their period (our equivalent of ‘modern dress’). This approach to design continued for the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries: as depicted in the first illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s complete works (held in the SBT Collections), it was quite normal to see actors performing in powdered wigs and frock coats around 1709. Fashion had changed, but the practice of setting Shakespeare’s plays in the recognisable environment of the present day had not.


Illustrations for Macbeth (left), Hamlet (centre), and King Lear (right) featuring in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


A new Nationalism

The second section of the talk focused on the earliest examples of Jacobethan aesthetics being used to give Shakespeare’s plays a historical setting. I showed several paintings that were originally displayed in the 1789-1805 Boydell Shakespeare Gallery (prints and some originals now held in the Trust’s Collections), and discussed how this project was part of a wider movement to develop English nationalism. I then looked at John Philip Kemble’s Hamlet, as depicted in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s 1801 portrait, and suggested that Jacobethan aesthetics were here used to defuse political tensions in the wake of the French Revolution.


Hamlet – John Philip Kemble. Engraving after the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1801. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


William Poel and the Shakespeare revolution

During the third segment of the presentation, I moved forward to the work of William Poel at the turn of the 20th century. During the Victorian era, Shakespearean performance had been characterised by a highly elaborate, pictorial approach to design (beautifully depicted in Ethel Webling’s illustrations of Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1898 Julius Caesar. Poel sought to find a more ‘authentic’ Shakespeare by replicating Elizabethan playing practices. This reconstructive approach to design proved extremely influential, and underpinned the development of various approaches to staging the playwright’s works that form the basis of Shakespearean performance practice today.


Hamlet, directed by William Poel in 1881. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The Research Conversation concluded with a brief consideration of how Jacobethan aesthetics have been adapted and reimagined by present-day directors and designers. What have the playwright’s life and works been made to mean in the 21st century, and what more might design across the Birthplace Trust Collections have to tell us about our current relationship with Shakespeare, his works, and his era?


My PhD research and this placement are generously funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership.


All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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Author:Ella Hawkins

Ella Hawkins is currently studying for a PhD in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research focuses on the significance of Jacobethanism in 21st-century stage and costume design for Shakespeare, and is funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Ella is currently completing a placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a ‘Research Advocate’: her role is to explore the Trust’s Collections and identify potential future research projects. In the coming weeks, Ella will be publishing a series of blog posts about the representation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays across the SBT’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections. As well as tying in with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming ‘Rome’ season, these posts will provide a way into looking at wider research possibilities relating to items in the Trust’s care. You can also find Ella on... WordPress: Twitter: @EllaMcHawk Instagram: ellamchawk

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