Shakespeare's Dead exhibition puts dark twist on 400th anniversary celebrations

Shakespeare's Dead: 22 April - 18 September 2016 in the Bodleian's Weston Library

14 April 2016

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the Bodleian Libraries will present a major exhibition, fittingly called Shakespeare's Dead, which will reveal the unique ways in which Shakespeare brings dying, death and the dead to life.

Image of Shakespeare's Dead text

The exhibition is curated by two University of Oxford English professors, Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith, whose Image of the front page of Shakespeare's First Folio, Bodleian Librariesinnovative research on this subject underpins the exhibition's content.

'This unique exhibition explores a fascinating theme in Shakespeare's works,' said curator Emma Smith. Shakespeare's Dead shows how Shakespeare channelled the universal fear of death into dramatic moments that continue to affirm life for audiences and readers around the world. The exhibition will be an opportunity for visitors to rediscover Shakespeare in a whole new light.'

The exhibition features many gems from the Bodleian's world-famous collections, including Shakespeare's First Folio, the earliest editions of his works including Romeo & Juliet and Venus and Adonis, and many other original quarto playbooks. Shakespeare's own works will be accompanied by illuminating examples of poetry, sermons, pamphlets, plays, diaries and illustrations by Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries across Europe.

The eclectic objects on display include loans from the Ashmolean Museum, and from Brasenose and Corpus Christi Colleges and Oxfordshire Museums Service; a specially commissioned animated film by artist Tom Cross, based on local primary school pupils' drawings of Shakespearean death scenes; and a 'Dover Cliff' triptych painted by Oxford artist Tom de Freston. Further bespoke installations will include a replica of Desdemona's deathbed, emphasising that Shakespeare's greatest surviving monument is his own works.

Shakespeare's Dead reveals the divisive, often violent religious context of death in Shakespeare's time. It also shows how death on stage is different from death in real life: the dead come to life, ghosts haunt the living and scenes of mourning are subverted by the fact that the supposed Image of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, Bodleian Librariescorpse still breathes. The exhibition features death-haunted heroes such as Macbeth and Hamlet, and death-teasing heroines like Juliet, Ophelia, and Cleopatra. It explores the fear of 'something after death' and characters' terrifying visions of being dead. But it also uncovers the constant presence of death in Shakespeare's comedies and how the grinning jester might be a leering skull in disguise.

Above all, the exhibition shows how death in Shakespeare's plays tends to affirm or transform life - both its pain and its promise.

The ingenious ways of dying in Shakespeare, from suicide and murder, and from workaday dagger to baroque pie recipe, are all revealed in this unique exhibition. 'Shakespeare scripts his scenes of dying with extraordinary care,' said curator Simon Palfrey. 'Famous last words - like Hamlet's "The rest is silence", Mercutio's "A plague on your houses", or Richard III's "My kingdom for a horse" - are also giving crucial choices to the actors as to exactly how and when to die. Instead of the blank finality of death, we get a unique entrance into the loneliness or confusion of dying.'

Image from Layla and Majnun, Bodleian LibrariesShakespeare's Dead will take visitors on a journey into the land of Shakespeare's dead. It will magnify specific moments, just as a play does, giving visitors a dynamic, immersive feel for the terminal experiences being enacted.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian said: 'We are delighted to be collaborating with our colleagues in the English Faculty at Oxford to present this unique perspective on Shakespeare's works. We are delighted to show some of our most compelling literary treasures, in the new ST Lee Gallery at the Weston Library. Shakespeare's Dead will be an exciting addition to the calendar of events taking place across the city as part of the Shakespeare Oxford 2016 celebrations.'

Shakespeare's Dead will open on 22 April 2016. Admission to the exhibition will be free and booking is not required. A programme of talks and events will be held over the course of the exhibition and are being held as part of Shakespeare Oxford 2016. A publication by Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith, Shakespeare's Dead, is available to pre-order from our online shop.

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