Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shakespeare's Diary

Dear Diary: Ye gads! the damn bloody fool Southampton is driving me mad as Ophelia! He be a charming bloke, with delicate folds of curling hair better suited for a woman than a man, and I daresay he has the financial resources needed to stage my plays, but he breaks the straws of my patience with his poking and prodding, wanting to know every last word of my latest play. He's almost as bad as Her Majesty! I expect I'll have to dedicate yet another comedy or poem to him. He likes to have his locks stroked. Back to work... 'Whether 'tis nobler the soul...the spirit?...the mind? suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune...'

Okay, so obviously that isn't really a passage from Shakespeare's diary. Such a book probably doesn't exist. However, on Friday I went to The Morgan Library to do some dissertation research, and I took some time to walk through two of their current exhibitions that have nothing to do one another: diaries and Shakespeare. The Morgan Library is a delightful NYC museum, not typically on the tourist's radar. It is a museum with a collection of primarily works on paper: drawings, watercolors, prints, books, manuscripts, sheet music, and so on. It was established by J. P. Morgan when he turned over his father's library and collection to the City. His father was the famous J. Pierpont Morgan, the banker, whose voracious collecting amassed an incredible array of material in all media, many of which went to other institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can go to The Morgan and see his Gilded Age library and other rooms from his home and many paintings from his Renaissance art collection, while also seeing excellent exhibitions on a variety of subjects.

The exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives brings together works by people as disparate as Charlotte Brontë to Tennessee Williams. The idea of the diary here is broadly defined, from actual bound journals recording the thoughts of the famous and ordinary, to illustrated manuals, study works, calendar journals, religious treatises, etc. The exhibition is interesting conceptually, especially for anyone who is a journal writer (I've been keeping them sporadically for nearly 20 years now!). But the actual installation is a bit dreary and uninteresting, short of seeing the handwriting of these people. For all the hype of connecting diaries to the current world of blogs and social networking as the exhibition claims, it was disappointing that they didn't put a station up that allowed people to leave their own thoughts or contribute to a journal of some sort. The online version of the exhibition, however, is superb. With zoomable digital images and more narrative to learn about individuals and their diaries, it may be worth spending your time visiting that version of the exhibition than going to the museum itself.

In sharp contrast, however, the very focused exhibition The Changing Face of William Shakespeare relates to the scholarship done to authenticate the now-famous Shakespeare portrait, about which I blogged two years ago (see the image above). The exhibition argues that the now-called Cobbe portrait is perhaps the best and earliest representation of Shakespeare himself. This small exhibition of a few oil portraits, prints, books, and manuscripts shows how derivatives of this picture over time help reinforce the belief that this portrait is as close to the most accurate representation of the bard. The show itself is small, but in this case intimacy works well, especially because the actual portrait of Shakespeare is simply beautiful and you feel as if you're in the presence of someone regal. The painting practically glows, and the artist's attention to detail in areas like facial hair truly are best seen in person. The painting make you realize that even if this isn't Shakespeare it was undoubtedly someone perceived as important because of the attention paid to the subject's physical appearance and cultural standing.

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