Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Shakespeare and his Porcupine

Last week I had the chance to visit Stratford-upon-Avon for the APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) meeting.  I have never been to Stratford before and was interested to experience a rather Shakespeare-heavy day full of Tudor buildings, plays and records from way before the National existed.

We started off at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, bypassing the queues of tourists waiting in the rain to nip in the library entrance (a much appreciated perk of the job) and had a tour of the library and archive.  Here we were shown many treasures including the parish register for Shakespeare's birth and death as well as the absolutely massive book of signatures from the American donors, who provided money to rebuild the burnt down Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.  A particularly beautiful book was a version of 'As You Like It' with set and costume designs by Salvador Dali - it was as spectacular as it was bizarre.  Two very interesting items were books written in the seventeenth century, one of which documented animals, real and fictitious.  Among tips such as the benefits of feeding your dragon lettuce, there is an entry for the porcupine.  The 'fretful porpentine' of Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5 has often been used as evidence that Shakespeare did not write his works since how could he possibly have encountered a porcupine or travelled to all of the places he mentions?  There was also an early atlas with lengthy descriptions of various countries, among them Illyria, the setting for 'Twelfth Night'.  Shakespeare may well have been using 'facts' from books such as these.

We then moved to the Shakespeare Institute, a research library attached to the University of Birmingham.  This is an unusual library since it is, at once, a special collection but at the same time a research library.  They have decided that for every ebook they buy, they will buy a hard copy for the collection so that they maintain the expansion of the special collection.  The Institute also collect versions of the Shakespeare plays and the most bizarre one was a graphic novel by Nicki Greenberg!

It was very interesting finally to find out how all of the Shakespeare institutions interlink - Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Shakespeare Institute, Royal Shakespeare Company, Open Air Theatre Regent's Park and The Globe.  Even though all of these places are Shakespeare focussed, they are still busy with the same sorts of activities as we are - oral histories, anniversaries, outreach, internal requests etc.  It reinforced my belief that archiving as a profession prepares you for work in any institution where you can then learn about that history.  The amount of people who think that you need to be a theatre boffin to have my job is amazing - sure, knowledge of the shows is incredibly valuable, but if you don't know how to catalogue or answer enquiries, then, really, what role do you have?!

A note from the archive...

The National Theatre Archive is insanely busy at the moment with the anniversary looming in October.  Take a look at the 50th Anniversary website and know that the Archive has been involved in almost every project on there, in particular the exhibitions, timeline app, Gala and all documentaries.  I'm incredibly lucky to be part of the National at this exciting point and I am learning A LOT.

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