William Shakespeare lived briefly in Chicago, in the summer of 1603. As you might remember from grade school, his ship was blown off course sailing from his home in Stratford-on-Avon to London, drifting instead through the unbuilt St. Lawrence Seaway and ending up at colonial Chicago. Though records were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1666, the Bard is thought to have stayed at Fort Dearborn, where legend is he performed in a barracks production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Though Shakespeare soon returned to England via the Graf Zeppelin, experts suspect his masterpiece, “Richard III,” written in 1592, was influenced by his sojourn here.
I’m going to enjoy the Trump era. Why should he be the only one free to lie with impunity? Safe in the assumption that his audience either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the actual facts are. No one can prove that Shakespeare never lived in Chicago. Besides, if he didn’t live here, why is there a “Shakespeare Street”? Answer that! You can’t. I rest my case.
Until Jan. 20, however, 43 percent of the nation must limit ourselves to what Othello calls “the ocular proof,” that is, depending on verified reality to provide amazement — a practice that already feels antique, like dipping candles. So it is good that the Newberry Library has taken the most picked-over historical subject imaginable, the aforementioned William Shakespeare, and turned his legacy into a true font of fascination.
“Creating Shakespeare” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 31 in the museum’s ground floor exhibit space. It doesn’t dwell on the meager known facts about Shakespeare’s life, such as his death in 1616 which prompted these celebrations. Instead it looks at how his legacy has been, in each new generation, re-worked into the important creative force we enjoy today.
“The reason for Shakespeare’s survival in some ways has very little to do with Shakespeare himself,” said Jill Gage, who spent four years assembling the show, and enjoys this august title: Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing and Bibliographer for British Literature and History. “He was the raw material, but over the past four centuries other people have re-created him and really been responsible for his survival.”
At times Shakespeare fell from favor.
“Within 50 years of Shakespeare’s death, he was old-fashioned,” Gage said. “They revised him.”
If Shakespeare had come alive 100 years after his death, “he wouldn’t recognize his plays,” she said. “Nahun Tate, poet laureate in England revises ‘Lear’ in which Lear and Cordelia live. Lear regains the throne and Cordelia marries Edgar … Tate is a royalist. He didn’t want to show a king being usurped and murdered on the stage.”
The Newberry has prized a number of treasures from the British Library, such as one of two existing copies of the famous “Bad Quarto” of 1603, the first known printing of Hamlet.
“This is something that has never been in Chicago before and will never be in Chicago again,” said Gage. There is much Chicago material, such as a costume Edwin Booth wore in Chicago in the 1870s, and a playbill ballyhooing his brother, John Wilkes Booth, when he performed here in 1862 and told the Tribune, quoting Richard III, “I am determined to play the villain.” We forget how famous Booth was. His shooting Lincoln was as if some well-known actor of questionable stability — think Shia LaBeouf — shot the president.
Any worthwhile exhibit should have one fact that floors you, and as tempted as I am to make you go to the show to discover it, I’d be neglecting my newsman’s duty if I didn’t tell you here. In 1774 the Continental Congress banned theater. “We will discountance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially … shows, plays and other expensive diversions.”
Wow. Nothing I’ve learned about the American Revolution reminded me so starkly as this ban did that we were founded — duh — by revolutionaries. We’re lucky they didn’t set up a guillotine in front of Independence Hall. Maybe that’s coming.
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