Monday, 7 December 2015

Shakespeare exhibition in London

From the National Archives in England (

3 February – 29 May 2016
  • First joint exhibition from The National Archives and King’s College London brings six key Shakespeare documents together for the first time to provide a unique journey and fresh insights into Shakespeare’s life in London
  • Once-in-a-generation opportunity to see the documents that include Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament (pic right) and four of his six known signatures in existence – including his earliest and latest
  • New insights will be revealed – highlights will include his will which is currently undergoing a significant programme of conservation treatment at The National Archives
  • The exhibition will be hosted by King’s College London at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, London, WC2R 2LS from 3 February – 29 May 2016
  • Exhibition will feature a digital installation designed by 59 Productions, the creative team responsible for the video projection design of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and exhibitions such as David Bowie is at the V&A
  • TICKETS go on sale from Monday 7 December 2015 available from

By Me William Shakespeare A Life in Writing is a unique and first time collaboration between The National Archives and King’s College London.

Record specialists at The National Archives and academics from the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London – the world’s foremost centre for the study of Shakespeare – have carefully selected six of the nation’s most important documents held by The National Archives relating to Shakespeare’s life. [See summary of the documents below].

Presented together for the first time, these are some of the most significant documents in the world that track Shakespeare’s existence as a citizen of London, as a businessman, as a family man, servant to the King and even possibly a thief and a subversive. They explore both his domestic and professional lives, what it meant to live in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and the social impact of his plays. The exhibition will take place at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House – it was at the original Somerset House where early performances of Shakespeare’s plays took place and the will was first held.

Visitors will encounter Shakespeare in his own words and in his own handwriting. They will be taken on a journey from the birth of The Globe through to Shakespeare’s dying days in Stratford-upon-Avon.

This exhibition provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see these key documents, including four of the six known signatures, alongside carefully selected artefacts and paintings from various institutions.

Six scenes in Shakespeare’s life are narrated through key documents and include highlights such as:
  • Court papers following the daring ‘theft’ (possibly involving Shakespeare himself) of materials from a rival theatre on one side of the Thames to create The Globe on the other side of the river
  • Shakespeare’s rise in power both socially and commercially as he takes a controlling share in The Globe and leads a favourite theatre company of both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and VI.
  • Royal papers show payments to Shakespeare for his Boxing Day performances of new plays for James I’s wife Queen Anne and that Shakespeare took part in James I’s coronation procession, marking his honorary and privileged position at court
  • Court papers capturing the trial and retribution against those involved in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601 in which Shakespeare’s ‘subversive’ play Richard II was used by Essex’s supporters to stoke insurrection. The fact that Shakespeare avoided being arrested or hung illustrates his favoured position by Queen Elizabeth I
  • Shakespeare’s deposition in the courts over a disputed dowry payment provide insights into how he might have spoken and his earliest recorded signature

Ongoing conservation with Shakespeare’s will
The National Archives has been carrying out conservation work on Shakespeare’s will this year with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the chronology of its drafting. Results of this work will be revealed during the exhibition next year.

Deborah Bull, Assistant Principal, King’s College London said: ‘This unprecedented collaboration between King’s College London and The National Archives will take an entirely innovative approach to connecting audiences with Shakespeare’s life. The digital installation - juxtaposed with these historic and precious documents, preserved over four centuries – give us an opportunity to witness Shakespeare’s life in London. From personal court testimony, through Boxing Day performances for King and Queen, to the theft of a theatre - the exhibition will enable audiences to engage and identify with a man who has influenced cultures across the globe for the past 400 years.’

Professor Gordon McMullan, Director, London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London said: ‘The documents in this extraordinary exhibition offer unique insight into Shakespeare’s life and that of his fellow actors and playwrights. They represent the core of our knowledge of his biography – his intera_ctions with officialdom, whether law cases, records of performance at court, tense examinations over potentially treasonous activity, disputes over rent, marital tensions, or the end of a life. Together, these records – which are unlikely to be on public display again in our lifetimes – give us the opportunity to reconstruct Shakespeare’s life. We in the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s are privileged to have the chance to share the curation of this wonderful exhibition with The National Archives’ experts and to be actively involved in making these priceless documents accessible to all.’

Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper at The National Archives said: ‘The National Archives holds the world’s largest collection of documents relating to Shakespeare’s life. ‘By me William Shakespeare A Life in Writing’ will take visitors on a journey through Shakespeare’s London and bring them closer than ever to the man behind the plays and the people and places that inspired him. This partnership between The National Archives and King’s College London offers the world-class expertise of two institutions to reveal the untold stories of Shakespeare and life in early modern London.’


All documents are registered with UNESCO as part of the UK memory of the world register.

1. Removal of the Globe from Shoreditch to Bankside. Documents created in 1601-2, refers to incident in 1598-99
This document from Star Chamber - the judicial arm of the King’s Council - reveals the unusual origins of The Globe. Richard Burbage and his fellow actors, possibly including Shakespeare himself, built the Globe from materials removed from The Theatre, another playhouse on the other side of the river from The Globe. The document refers to ‘the violent theft’ of the building and reveals the origins of The Globe – the source of Shakespeare’s financial success – in this property dispute.

2. Testimony Regarding Globe Performance of Richard II and Essex Rebellion, 1601
These witness statements recount the events of the unsuccessful rebellion led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex against Elizabeth I and reveal how Shakespeare’s work was used in politically subversive ways. Essex was popularly associated with character Bolingbroke who leads a rebellion against a tyrannical king in an event dramatised by the play. A performance of the play was commissioned by Essex’s co-conspirators, a fact revealed in the testimonies used to convict them of treason.

3. Grant of Red Cloth to Shakespeare and Others for Participation in James I’s Coronation Procession, 1604
Listed in accounts from the coronation procession of James I and VI, this grant of four and a half yards of red cloth from the King to Shakespeare reflects his status as one of the King’s servants and the point when the playwright’s career began to flourish in a major way. This ceremony followed designation of the troop as the King’s Men a year earlier in 1603.

4. Account Listing Plays Performed at Court, 1604-05 and 1611-12
Royal accounts of the Master of Revels reveal which plays were performed at court over a particular season, including those performed over the Christmas period. These accounts, copies of which were s_ubmitted to the Exchequer, allow us to date when Shakespeare likely wrote A Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Love’s Labours Lost and Othello and show that Shakespeare’s company performed for the King more than any other company – illustrating his privileged position and success.

5. Shakespeare gives evidence in a dispute over a dowry. Documents written in 1612 but refer to events of 1604
Shakespeare provided evidence in court when his then landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, failed to provide his son-in-law, Stephen Bellott, with a dowry for his daughter’s hand. Shakespeare is likely to have played a role arranging this marriage and may have even performed the handfasting – or betrothal – of the couple. This document recording his testimony also includes his earliest recorded signature. This episode in Shakespeare’s life may have influenced the plot of Measure for Measure, the first recorded performance of which was just few weeks after the marriage of Stephen Belott and Mary Mountjoy. Themes in the play address abstinence, dowry, and marriage, all themes of this case.

6. Will and Testament of William Shakespeare, 1616
Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616. His will, signed by him in three places, is indicative of his familial and social relations. Shakespeare died a wealthy man. Evidence indicates that he revised his will as his estate changed. Just before his death, Shakespeare added personal bequests to his will including the gift of a silver bowl to his daughter, memorial rings to his actor friends in London, and
his second best bed to his wife. Shakespeare also left most of his property to his eldest daughter, although his will also indicates he hoped to establish a male legacy.

(With thanks to Emma Collins at TNA)


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