‘Reader, look not on his picture, but his book’

'Reader, look not on his picture, but his book'

MATTHEW BENTLEY
CULTURE EDITOR

“Shakespeare unnerves us,” Adrian Lester, as
Ira Aldrige, says in the opening scene
Of Red Velvet. As he recounts his story
Of bringing Shakespeare to Rabinsk, it takes
Your breath away. Imagine watching Hamlet
For the first time, with no idea what is
To come. To watch Othello and Macbeth
Crumble. Imagine being in the crypt
As Romeo kills himself.
To hear that all the world’s a stage for the
First time.

Like others, I too love Shakespeare.
I’ve read or seen most of his plays, and have
Read a number of his biographies.
There is very little I enjoy more
Than him. But, for the other group, perhaps
99 percent of people, Shakespeare
Is quite an interesting sight to see,
But not something that takes up too much time.
His prowess as a poet is sublime.

In Shakespeare: Staging the World, curator Becky Allen takes on the difficult task of putting Shakespeare in context. The exhibition theorizes that in order to understand him and his works, you have to look at his world.

Red Velvet, currently playing at the Tricycle Theater, is a play about Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello for only two nights. This piece of theater offers very interesting takes on what Shakespeare means to different people, proving that there are countless ways to learn about the Bard.

To see props as Shakespeare would have seen them was strange. “Two of his weapons,” a rapier and dagger, as Hamlet quips, looked less impressive behind a glass box than I had ever seen used on stage. Somehow, when you take it out of the hands of a murderer, off of the stage, add 300 years of rust, and put it behind glass, it loses a little danger. Yet, there is still magic in it.

Brilliantly curated, it leads you through almost every play individually, with bits and pieces sporadically added about Shakespeare’s life encapsulating the world of Shakespeare spectacularly. Seeing the original petition Shakespeare wrote in order to receive a coat of arms is interesting. What makes it more interesting is to hear about the character created by Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, in order to mock Shakespeare’s coat of arms.

While the recordings that surround you as you walk through the exhibition, because they were specifically recorded for this exhibition, lack the brilliance of live theatre, they still immerse you in his language and still keep you involved with his characters.
The exhibition was wonderfully curated, teaching you something new about each one of his plays. Notes about why Venice was chosen for the settings of Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, complemented with Venetian glass and a large portrait of the Moor, a Middle Eastern diplomat who arrived in London two years before Othello was written, lead to a spectacularly authentic and brilliant show, that you can come away from feeling you learned something.

The most amazing things in the show were the two pieces that greeted you as you entered. Firstly, the huge hard back original First Folio, sitting proudly, open to a page of Macbeth. It really is a sight to behold, and a wonderful artifact. I wish I could have had a chance to flip through those pages, although, that would probably destroy them. Secondly, and perhaps most interestingly, a page from “Sir Thomas Moore”, a fairly unknown play, written mostly by someone else. But what made this artifact special is that it is the only piece of writing in Shakespeare’s original hand, so we believe. After staring at it for far too long, I began to feel sorry for his actors, as his handwriting was fairly atrocious, and would not have passed in an ASL classroom.

As you get ready to leave, you pass one final object. It is a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, smuggled into Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other members of the anti-apartheid movement were imprisoned. It is amazing to see how these great men managed to communicate, through the notes in the margins and signatures. Is it not haunting that Mandela’s passage of choice came from Julius Caesar and involved men not fearing death, but being brave to achieve their means? Is Shakespeare so universal that political leaders some 400 years after his death could use his words for inspiration? Clearly, that is why we continue to study Shakespeare, and why we need to keep reading.

When I left the exhibition, I rushed home, opened up my annotated and messy copy of the Complete Works and read the large passages again. I could not help but want to absorb his words, again.

matthew_bentley@asl.org