The Shakespeare’s Dead exhibition at the Bodleian puts a dark twist on 400th anniversary celebrations. It reveals the divisive, often violent religious context of death in Shakespeare's world. 

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian is presenting a major free exhibition, Shakespeare's Dead, which reveals the unique ways in which Shakespeare brings dying and the dead to life. It is curated by two of the University's English professors, Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith, whose innovative research on this subject underpins the exhibition’s content.  

Curator Emma Smith explained the thinking behind her selection: ‘It shows how Shakespeare channelled the universal fear of death into dramatic moments that continue to affirm life for audiences and readers around the world.’The only surviving copy of the first edition of Venus and AdonisThe only surviving copy of the first edition of Venus and Adonis

The exhibition features many gems from the Bodleian’s world-famous collections, including Shakespeare’s First Folio, the earliest editions of Romeo & Juliet and Venus and Adonis, and many other original quarto playbooks. Shakespeare's own works are accompanied by illuminating examples of poetry, sermons, pamphlets, plays, diaries and illustrations by Shakespeare’s predecessors and contemporaries across Europe.  

The eclectic objects on display include loans from the Ashmolean Museum, from Brasenose and Corpus Christi Colleges and Oxfordshire Museums Service; a specially commissioned animated film by artist Tom Cross, and a 'Dover Cliff' triptych painted by Oxford artist Tom de Freston. Further bespoke installations include a replica of Desdemona’s deathbed and a tomb of books, emphasising that Shakespeare’s greatest surviving monument is his own works.Bodleian_Shakespeare's_Dead_Opening

Shakespeare's Dead reveals the divisive, often violent religious context of death in Shakespeare's time. It also explores how death on stage is different from death in real life: the dead come to life, ghosts haunt the living and scenes of mourning are subverted by the fact that the supposed corpse still breathes. The exhibition features death-haunted heroes such as Macbeth and Hamlet, and death-teasing heroines like Juliet, Ophelia, and Cleopatra. It explores the fear of 'something after death' and characters' terrifying visions of being dead. It also uncovers the constant presence of death in Shakespeare's comedies and how the grinning jester might be a leering skull in disguise. 

Above all, it shows how death in Shakespeare's plays tends to affirm or transform life - both its pain and its promise. 

The ingenious ways of dying in Shakespeare, from suicide and murder, and from workaday dagger to baroque pie recipe, are all revealed in this unique exhibition. ‘Shakespeare scripts his scenes of dying with extraordinary care,’ said curator Simon Palfrey. ‘Famous last words – like Hamlet's “The rest is silence”, Mercutio's “A plague on your houses”, or Richard III's “My kingdom for a horse” – are also giving crucial choices to the actors as to exactly how and when to die. Instead of the blank finality of death, we get a unique entrance into the loneliness or confusion of dying.’Simon+Palfrey_Maggie+Smith_Emma+Smith_Richard+Ovenden

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, reflected: ‘We are delighted to be collaborating with our colleagues in the English Faculty to present this unique perspective on Shakespeare’s works'

Admission to the exhibition in the Weston Library will be free as part of Shakespeare Oxford 2016. A publication by Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith, ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’, is available at the Bodleian Shop.   

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All images © Oxford University Images, Oxfordshire Museums Service

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