He has a bobble head, and she’s on a gin bottle but they’re just examples of the continuing popularity of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
The exhibit, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a look at the popularity and the popularization of two classic writers. It’s not a very large, but a very choice, exhibit that covers the plays, books, films, toys, games and centuries of admiration, extending beyond death for some admirers.
The cult of “Will” started not long after his death in 1616, (as the exhibit shows) the classic paintings that readers know as well as a reproduction of the 1623 Droeshout engraving in the First Folio of his plays.
In the case of “Jane” the exhibit points out that “Several images of Austen were made during her lifetime, but most were considered inadequate as a public author portrait — too informal and too young.” The best known portrait is a modification approved by her mother and sister after Austen’s death.
Among the highlights of the exhibit are the excellent wall panel explanations. They treat the topic of “celebrity” as regards the long-deceased authors with some respect. They also don’t mock the fans.
You get some examples of branded merchandise written up with a sense of humor. For example, “Celebrities sell products — sometimes unwittingly.” Then there’s a list that includes “hotels and shoes to pubs, gin, and beer.” The Shakespeare pub sign hangs nearby.
Among the exhibits is a “Bath Gin” bottle with bearing Jane Austen’s likeness.
“Will and Jane” at the movies are well represented. There’s a touchscreen panel where you can see clips from various films such as Shakespeare in Love, and listen to the actors speaking their lines
The famous wet shirt incident of Colin Firth’s from “Pride and Prejudice” is part of a film montage of other actors re-enacting the image — including Benedict Cumberbatch’s wet shirt charity shot for Cancer Research UK.
By the way, Firth’s Mr. Darcy shirt (dry) is on display.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a story called “The Janeites” and a copy of it is included. Both Shakespeare and Austen were sent to troops in World War I and II. (I know that my father, on the Burma Road during World War II, read and memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets from an Army edition.)
One of the best aspects of the show is the fact that it’s not stiff. For the modern age there are even authors’ Action Figures. The William Shakespeare doll has a “Removable Quill Pen and Book!” while Jane Austen’s has a “writing desk and quill pen.”
The cult of celebrity for “Will and Jane” has led to the modernizing of their works as well. Just think of the many different versions of Macbeth set in contemporary settings – and the adaptations of Austen in modern chic-lit.
The display case of “Travesties” has the delightful label, “Once a literary celebrity’s work becomes household knowledge, it is ripe for parody.” Here you’ll also find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters. And, one I hadn’t seen before by Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton – Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austin.
(One they missed was George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr. American with its description of an Othello performance (pg. 21) in a gold rush-era silver mining camp.)
The exhibit includes a wall panel on “Fan Fictions” which go from Internet “characterizations” to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly.
Fan idolatry has extended beyond the owner’s death. One panel has a note from Louise West of the Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, “It is distressing to see mounds of human ash, particularly so for our gardener. Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!”
This year was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, with a year-long celebration being held in the UK. Next year comes the celebration of Jane Austen’s death in 1817, so expect a torrent of new items.
But, you can get a jump on them at the Folger Library’s exhibit which runs through November 6, 2016.