One Big Extra-Illustrated Shakespeare

“Shakespeare in the Parlor” is an online exhibition of images found in literary annuals and gift books used to depict the characters and plots of Shakespeare works. The homepage of the exhibition site provides a description of the exhibition and brief background information, explaining that in the nineteenth century both gift books and Shakespeare were popular because American audiences of Shakespeare wanted to be able to read his plays at home, but also enjoy the visual pleasure of the stage within books through pictures. Below this description appears a paragraph indicating that the images are arranged by literary or subject-matter theme. Further down the page it becomes clear that while the initial goal of the site is to exhibit prints and paintings found in these books and consequently depict the way in which Shakespeare’s motifs and characters were imagined and understood in the nineteenth century, the ultimate intention and hope of the curators is that this small, deliberately limited window into the American Antiquarian Society’s collection of prints and engravings will spark the viewer’s interest in exploring and visiting the entire AAS gift book collection. An interesting sidenote: the AAS seems so intent on proving its validity and its collection’s impressiveness that they have worded the exhibition introduction so as to ambiguously describe the images as “ways William Shakespeare was pictured,” suggesting that the images are literally of or contemporary to Shakespeare, when in reality they were created centuries later and none of them were made by or of Shakespeare directly. Though this might just be an accidental ambiguity, it reads like coy audience-luring.

The “Shakespeare images” selected from the AAS’s collection have been divided into four categories for the purpose of this exhibit: women, “re-using shakespeare,” comedies, and “imagining the man.” The relationship between the portraits of female characters (the women category) and images of plot elements that reoccur in many stories (“re-using Shakespeare”) is blurry, but because of the source – gift books of a certain time period – from which they all come, they can be grouped together. Were the category descriptions longer and a greater attempt made to connect all four groups, the images would be more comprehensible as one large exhibition of Shakespeare illustrations rather than a highly categorical, divided exhibition of peripherally related pictures. The “types” of images reveal information about the audience of the texts, but without more extensive descriptions of the categories it is hard to know just how significant it is that the images can be categorized.

Provided next to each image is the title, author, date of creation, call number, keywords for search, notes on the object itself, notes on the subject matter, and links to the AAS record for the object and the full page of the gift book un-cropped. Without this information, the significance of each image in its category would be completely lost. The image below shows a scene that is “re-used,” and it is described as appearing in two different books to accompany two different stories, indicating its re-usability.

Harlow, George Henry, 1787-1819, artist. “Trial of Queen Katharine.” [graphic/ Painted by G.H. Harlow. Engraved by J. Sartain.”
In the same way, the portraits are in debt to their accompanying descriptions. Though they do not depict action and are thus easier to understand based on their categorical organization – all of the “women” images are portraits of women – who they are and what text they accompany is unknown until one reads the information next to the image.

Hayter, John, 1800-1895, artist. Maria. [graphic/ J. Hayter. W.H. Mote.
Ultimately, this is an interestingly multifaceted exhibition that points to the audience and priorities of the AAS as they try to approach it using their collection. Though their collection is vast, the attention they are trying to grab using Shakespeare’s name is that of an audience that might not initially take the time to look through the collection of nineteenth century gift books the AAS possesses. It is a very unique and interesting group of images that represent a small, specific element of gift books in the nineteenth century in a way that is interesting to a broad audience of historians, archivists, literary scholars, and general museum-goers.


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