Celebrating Shakespeare's birth makes more sense than marking his death.
The birth, 450 years ago next week, started something unceasing, an industry of Shakespeare performances, publications and scholarship, in addition to the inspiration and wisdom his work has provided. The death — on the same date, April 23, that is believed to be the birth date — just meant the passing of a physical body and the end of the possibility of new plays.
Also, there's this: The big death anniversary doesn't come until 2016. He died 400 years ago in 1616.
So the Newberry Library and partners next week are lighting candles for Shakespeare in several ways, all of them free, including an exhibition of rarities from the shelves in its climate-controlled vault, a staged reading of "All's Well That Ends Well" and a night of conversation between leading Shakespeare interpreters, including Barbara Gaines of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
"The Bard Is Born," opening Monday night for attendees of the Gaines event, showcases the Newberry's core competency — rare books and scholarship about them. To give the show of 40-plus items cohesion, curator Jill Gage decided to focus it on "Henry V," the first play that Chicago Shakespeare mounted and one it is doing again at the end of April.
"I always think doing a Shakespeare exhibition is the easiest and the worst," Gage said this week, noting that the Newberry, although not a Shakespeare library, has some 10,000 related items in its collection. "It's like somebody saying, 'Do an exhibition on 400 years of literature, period.' How do you winnow that down? The other difficulty is that Shakespeare is so personal to people."
So one person is the most drawn to the "once more unto the breach" battle speech from "Henry V," or to the one about "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
For someone else, the touchstone might be "All's Well," one of the so-called problem plays, and the unending debate over how best to stage and understand the work. The "All's Well" reading, at 10 a.m. Saturday, will be done by Chicago Shakespeare Project, another Newberry partner in the birthday celebration.
"No matter what you're into, Shakespeare is a gateway into the (Newberry) collection: popular culture, elite culture, songs, dances, history, literature," said Gage, a Newberry reference librarian. "He remains at the center of the humanities, I think."
She chose items that were related to "Henry V" or that might inspire viewers to say, "'I didn't know that about Shakespeare,' or, 'I didn't know the Newberry had that,'" she said.
There is a rare 1619 Third Quarto edition of the play, identified on its title page as "The Chronicle Historie of Henry the fift: with his battell fought at Agin Court in France, Togither with Ancient Pistoll." The greeting card-size book is a gem; the play is sketchy and incomplete, probably due to the printer's reliance on an actor's memory, Gage said.
There is also a less rare — but still ridiculously rare and valuable — 1623 First Folio collection of Shakespearean plays that's more the size of a desktop dictionary. Here, the "Henry" is more recognizable and "adds all the famous parts," Gage said.
"These are kind of the 'wow' items," she said.
The library has also chosen materials, including contemporary magazine accounts, related to the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-Upon-Avon. The jubilee, staged five years after the actual birth bicentennial, did much to begin to establish Shakespeare as the English national poet after, said Gage, he had fallen out of fashion.
Although it rained steadily during the September 1769 event, James Boswell — Samuel Johnson's biographer — gave a glowing account in The London Magazine: "A numerous and brilliant company of nobility and gentry, the rich, the brave, the witty, and the fair, assembled to pay their tribute of praise to Shakespeare."
Gage compared the event to one of today's big music festivals, a Lollapalooza or a Coachella.
"That was really the beginning of what we would call 'bardolatry,'" she said.
The exhibition includes 20th-century artifacts, too, including materials showing the reconstruction of Shakespeare's home and the Globe Theatre in an English village built for Chicago's 1933 World's Fair. "So You're Going to MERRIE ENGLAND," says the cover of a guidebook.
And then there is Gaines' annotated "Henry V" script from the 1986 staging for Chicago Shakespeare, on the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park.
"'Henry V' was the play that started it," said Gaines, the theater's artistic director. "From that rooftop pub performance, we established a board of directors."