Words, Words, Mere Words: Shakespeare’s Will Goes On Display

By Me: William Shakespeare A Life in Writing ★★☆☆☆

By Zoe Craig Last edited 76 months ago
Words, Words, Mere Words: Shakespeare’s Will Goes On Display By Me: William Shakespeare A Life in Writing 2
By Who? The only picture of Will in the show

By Me: William Shakespeare offers a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity' to see nine key documents from the life and times of the Bard in this, the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death.

The organisers suggest if you don't see them now, you'll be missing out. Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament, plus four of his six known signatures from other priceless pieces of parchment that rarely go on display are here. After this show closes in May they'll be put back into storage for another 25 years.

The 17th century legal papers have been carefully selected by experts from the National Archives, working alongside academics from the London Shakespeare Centre at King's College London to 'provide a unique journey and fresh insights into Shakespeare's life in London.'

Through these documents we're shown Shakespeare the 'violent thief', possibly working alongside actor-friend Richard Burbage to steal a theatre, plank-by-plank, and rebuild it south of the river as The Globe. The now rodent-nibbled Star Chamber document states the event caused a 'great disturbing of the peace' and 'terrified' witnesses.

Stealing the scene: The complaint of Giles Allen against Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, 1601

Later we meet Shakespeare the matchmaker, and can read his own words in the famous dowry dispute, where he testified to the 'great good will and affection' shown by his landlord to his son-in-law, proclaiming him a 'very honest fellow' then denying knowledge of the exact financial agreements.

Finally, there's Shakespeare the benevolent quinquagenarian, amending his will to offer his second daughter, Judith a 'silver gilt bole', bestowing £10 to the poor of Stratford and singling out 11 friends to receive gifts including a sword, and money to buy mourning rings.

The will with explanatory wall

The significance of each of the documents is clearly explained, and there's certainly a buzz seeing Shakespeare's will back at Somerset House, where it was stored in the 1800s.

But, zounds! as Shakespeare might've said, it's a dry show. Besides the desiccated documents there's hardly anything else here to bring the topic to life. 'Words, words, mere words,' as Troilus complained. There's text upon text, then more explanatory text. And scant few pictures, artefacts or anything else to flesh out these bone-dry bits of bureaucracy.

Those images that are on display are just unmounted, unframed poster prints, like something from a student's bedroom: with the Portrait Gallery just down the road, couldn't the curators have borrowed a few likenesses to bring some life, some faces to the show? If the disputed dowry payment really was a 'courtroom drama', we'd loved to have heard an audio recording of the text. (Call Ben Crystal, he’d sort it out.) And as for the story about the red cloth, we know we can study clothes from the era: we’ve seen them at the excellent Shakespeare exhibitions at both the NPG and the British Museum earlier this decade.

Even the final video projection is dull: repeating what we’ve already read in earlier rooms, in a nearly unreadable font. It’s a frustrating missed opportunity to dramatise these potentially vibrant stories for a modern-day audience.

By Me feels like the academic curators, so deeply enamoured of their treasured documents have yet to learn they need to sell their passions to create a successful exhibition. Pay a tenner for a show, and your audience expects to be entertained; to interact; to be wooed. Something Shakespeare the showman certainly understood.

Hopefully Kings and the National Archives will spend the next 25 years studying how to make a blockbuster of these documents next time they wheel them out. We’ll be waiting.

By Me: William Shakespeare runs until 29 May, Tues to Sun, 10am to 6pm, (8pm Thu) in the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, East Wing, WC2R 2LS. Tickets cost £10/£8 concs, under 18s go free.

Last Updated 04 February 2016