A springtime of Shakespeare

Edwin Austin Abbey, The Play Scene in “Hamlet” (Act III, Scene 2), 1897. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection. This work is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery. Image courtesy of YUAG.

Yale celebrates the Bard campus-wide

By David Brensilver

After his arrival at Yale University in 2008, David Kastan kept “discovering new things” related to the school’s Shakespeare-related resources.

“I think it was partly that I was new to the community that this seemed so astonishing to me,” Kastan said in an e-mail. “Other people knew about it and maybe took it a bit for granted.”

According to Kathryn Krier, program coordinator for Shakespeare at Yale, the semester-long, campus-wide celebration of those vast resources, was Kastan’s idea.

“He’s one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars in the country,” Krier said of Kastan, the university’s George M. Bodman Professor of English.

Asked which elements of the university’s Shakespeare-related resources have most impressed him, Kastan, who spent 20 years at Columbia University before joining the faculty at Yale, said, “For me, given my interests, it is the amazing collection of Shakespeare-related books, many of which are on display in the Beinecke now. But now, having seen this all come together, it is both the quality and range of what is on offer campus-wide.”

The Shakespeare at Yale experience does not require a scholarly prerequisite.

“What is wonderful,” Kastan said, “is that all of this is open to the community, and even to a public outside of New Haven. It was imagined as a way to bring people to Yale to discover some of what is here to be enjoyed.”

Grauman Marks’ photo of Meryl Streep in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 1975 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is part of the Whitney Humanities Center’s Shakespeare at the Yale Rep exhibition. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, it might be said, is the epicenter of Shakespeare at Yale.

“Between the holdings of the Beinecke Library and the Elizabethan Club,” the university’s dedicated Shakespeare at Yale website points out, “Yale has the best collection of early printed editions of Shakespeare of any university in North America. These will be the centerpiece of a unique exhibition at the Beinecke.”

That exhibition, Remembering Shakespeare, which was curated by Kastan and the Beinecke’s curator, Kathryn James, “tells the story of how a playwright and poet in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England came to be remembered as the world’s most venerated author,” according to the Beinecke’s website, which indicates that the exhibition includes “works from the holdings of Yale University’s Elizabethan Club, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale Center for British Art, and Beinecke Library.”

At the Yale Center for British Art, “While these visions did appear”: Shakespeare on Canvas explores visual artists’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s works.

The exhibition of paintings from the center’s permanent collection “focuses primarily on depictions of Shakespeare’s comedies” while also drawing “on comedic elements from the tragedies,” YCBA communications coordinator, Kaci Bayless, said.

The YCBA website explains that “the promotion of the playwright as the ‘immortal bard’ was seized as an opportunity to foster a British school of history painting.”

“The eighteenth-century understanding of poetry and painting being sister arts helped to create a close relationship between literary works and the visual arts,” Christina Smylitopoulos, a postdoctoral research associate at the YCBA, said in an e-mail.

From the above-mentioned “British school of history painting” came what the YCBA website describes as “a new genre: the Shakespearean conversation piece.”

“The conversation piece — a group portrait, normally small-scaled, though often depicting the sitters in full-length and set in a domestic interior or a garden setting — became a fashionable trend in eighteenth-century portraiture,” Smylitopoulos said. “David Garrick … (the) actor and Drury Lane Theatre manager, commissioned many theatrical conversation pieces from leading artists (which) were often shown in new exhibition spaces like the annual shows at the Society of Artists … the Free Society of Artists … and the Royal Academy of Arts … Through the efforts of Garrick, Shakespeare’s plays flourished on the London stage in adapted forms and Garrick recognized the value of Shakespearean conversation pieces as both advertisements for his many productions and as commemorations of especially favored roles and scenes.”

Smylitopoulos, who curated “While these visions did appear”: Shakespeare on Canvas with Eleanor Hughes, the YCBA’s associate curator and head of exhibitions and publications, said, “One of the interesting aspects of the exhibition is that in includes representations of several types of Shakespearean interpretations. For example, artists treated Shakespearean themes in history paintings, portraiture, small-scaled scenes destined for illustrations of Shakespeare’s works, as well as more imaginative works which took a Shakespearean theme or character as a starting point, but may have then made departures from the text. … Shakespeare could inspire adaptations — theatrical, poetic, and artistic — and these adaptations became part of a flourishing aesthetic discourse.”

Gerry Goodstein’s photo of James Earl Jones and Harris Yulin in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 1980 production of Timon of Athens is part of the Whitney Humanities Center’s Shakespeare at the Yale Rep exhibition. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

At the Yale University Art Gallery, the works of Edwin Austin Abbey offer an American artist’s 19th century perspective on Shakespeare. From its collection of more than 3,000 works by Abbey, the gallery has organized an installation of the artist’s painting Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne – which, the YUAG website indicates, “depicts the scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which the hunchbacked Richard proposes to the grieving Lady Anne who knows that he has murdered both her husband and her father-in-law, King Henry VI.” Alongside the painting are displayed what the YUAG website describes as “several preliminary studies” for the work.

Complementing the YUAG installation is Abbey’s iconic painting The Play Scene in “Hamlet,” which is on permanent view in the gallery and is often incorporated into the organization’s education programs.

Shakespeare’s plays, of course, have long been part of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s diverse programming.

“Producing Shakespeare and other pieces in the more classical repertoire is directly related to our mission,” Rachel Smith, the theater’s associate director of marketing, said.

“Since Yale Rep’s inception,” Smith said, “we’ve produced some really well-known Shakespeare shows.”

A Whitney Humanities Center exhibition of photographs and promotional artwork called Shakespeare at Yale Rep celebrates those productions.

A poster promoting a 1921 Yale University Dramatic Association production of Twelfth Night. Yale Poster Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

“We thought, what better way to showcase them than to have an exhibition of our productions at the Rep over the ages,” Smith explained.

The Yale Rep’s contribution to Shakespeare at Yale is a production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Liz Diamond, who said she believes that Shakespeare, in this particular work, “requires us to awake our faith to the possibility of redemption … on every level.”

To do so, Diamond said, “He relies on the … magic of theater.”

The whole of Shakespeare at Yale, Kastan said, offers the region’s residents and visitors to the area “a terrific opportunity to see firsthand what is always said: that Shakespeare is, as one of his contemporaries said, ‘not of an age, but for all time.’ The truth of that is here in New Haven.”

For detailed information about events, exhibitions, programs, and schedules, visit Shakespeare.yale.edu.


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