Shakespeare: Metamorphosis at Senate House – Exploring the Seven Ages of Text

With Metamorphosis, The University of London kicked off its Shakespeare anniversary celebrations with a well-conceived exhibition that highlighted how the Bard’s longevity is not so much preserved by print, as as was saved by it. Well worth a visit, says I…

On launch night of Metamorphosis, on the lower floor of Senate House in front of a vividly Shakespeare-branded staircase, conversation soon brought a ghost to the battlements. Circling the prestigious library upstairs, later described as “beautiful, somewhat idiosyncratic”, could there be academics casting envious eyes at the attention lavished on Shakespeare in his anniversary year? Well, that’s only to be expected that any institution that enjoys the literary pedigree of the heart of the University of London. Stocked with incredible literary donations, some would always balk at the sheer weight of the attention lavished on a playwright who can be said already to be fairly popular. Casting back 400 years to 1616, that was a year that also lost Henslowe, Beaumont Castelvetro, Libavius and Cervantes… He’s taking over that Bard, that son of Stratford…

Fortunately, there was no sign of cloak or dagger hiding behind the pillars or drapes on the floors above us. But this all goes a fair way to the literal heart of the Senate House Library’s lean Metamorphosis exhibit: the mode of the Bard’s longevity. It’s a celebration, examination and acknowledgement of the mechanics, ingenuity and perseverance that swung into gear shortly after Shakespeare’s death, and played a huge role in propelling him to the heavens of the proscenium arch as it captured his work for the ages. As he died with no singularly recognised versions of his plays, Metamorphosis charts the story of his legacy arching from the texts and tales that influenced him through to the first folio collections that emerged in the latter years off his life, consolidated in the decades that followed and then tracks on to the digital age.

A wealth of resource

Metamorphosis draws on the considerable weight of Senate House to concisely draw in the four centuries of development and study since Shakespeare’s death into seven distinct ages, mapped across the familiar structure of the Seven Ages of Man soliloquy from As You Like It.

It’s a brilliant conceit.  But while there’s considerable heft in the volumes sat on the upper floors of Senate House, among a collection of over 2 million other books, the exhibition encourages far more thought than just the legacy contained in the glass display cases.

Firstly, there’s an intangible appeal to exploring the idea that Shakespeare’s works might never have made it. Of course, some of his works didn’t make it. That route to legacy was never a certainty. And while some faded away, of the half the playwright’s known plays that made it to print before his death, none of those could be considered definitive texts.

It’s there begins the interesting, fascinating and crucial journey that Senate House has a resources to explore and counter-balance.

Vice Chancellor Sir Adrian Smith opened proceedings on launch night, referencing the volumes of Shakespeare that remain the crown jewels of the Library’s collection, among various editions. A couple of first editions, seconds, thirds and fourths, built from the foundations of significant donations from the library’s humble start in 1836, through to the earnest establishment of a book fund in 1871. 1929 brought the Durning-Lawrence collection of 5,000 titles including all four Shakespeare folios. Three decades later, the Sterling Library brought 7,000 volumes including the first four folios and three early quartos among its prestigious collection.

The acknowledged “richness of resources” of the Senate collection comes into its own with an exhibition like this. But in a library that can never stand still, meeting a subject that refuses to – April saw the discover of another first edition folio of Shakespeare’s works on the Island of Bute – where to begin?

That first folio, of which 230 copies now exist, is a start of course. Collecting 36 of the Bard’s plays seven years after his death and the reason that the likes of Macbeth and The Tempest still exist while others have disappeared. But in the frame of this exhibit, neither that folio nor the versions that were published in 1632, 1664 or 1685 are the beginning. That’s made clear in the exhibition’s specially commissioned film, premiered during the launch, where Paterson Joseph takes in the surroundings of Senate House while relating the Seven Ages of Man soliloquy.

The Seven Ages

The Infant here is comprised of those influencing texts, sometimes picked up whole, sometimes carried through into now more famous works by allusion and footnotes. Quatros appeared in the 1590s, although the Folios that collected dubious and apocryphal texts together with the only existing versions of some of the Bard’s most famous plays were less about the emergence of Shakespeare as the world’s greatest playwright than the culmination of great swathes of work by eminent scholars of the time. That’s The Schoolboy, and when dispensed with, The Lover brought the weight of the 18th century editor, where folios were split out commentary appeared at the same time as the plays found a romantic resurgence on the stage.

The Soldier brought the conflict of the latter years of the 18th century as the ever increasing intensity of scholarship met increased public awareness of the Bard. The lack of definitive texts caused strife as the first swathe of scholar’s doubting his authorship gained voice. Balance returned The Justice, as the Oxford Shakespeare emerged in the 20th Century and the works spilled from classroom to film. The weight of the Bard had grown by the time of The Pantaloon where lavish anniversary commemorations fuelled extravagant copies of the texts that looked back to the 17th century, influencing parties, gatherings and pulling characters away from the stage into public entertainment. And then inevitably, on to the present day where Shakespeare left the printed page to join the digital age. An act thought popularly to risk the preserve such as Senate House’s but of course, found the institution and its ilk at the forefront of ensuring the Bard’s immortality. The final age, wryly called Oblivion.

The exhibition’s curators, Professor’s Karen Attar and Richard Espley, highlighted some of the stand outs in the exhibition during the launch. Form the earliest age, this included the 1683 acting version of Hamlet from the Durning-Lawrence donation, of which only eight copies are known to exist in the UK. A version that takes, in hindsight, a delightfully disrespectful tone to the text, cutting out swathes of ‘superfluous’ dialogue. From the height of the third age there’s Sam Jonson’s meticulously edited edition. From the sixth age of The Pantaloon, comes a lavish illustrated copy that Espley held up as a pinnacle of society appropriating the Bard.

Come the Oblivion, the literary elephant of the exhibition and inevitable punchline, Espley noted the MIT digitisation project of 1991. Capturing Shakespeare digitally for all time; a project that is still ongoing and of course, started in an academic institution some predicted would be rendered obsolete. Those tomes, and all in the exhibit, are found in the heart of the upper library, at the end of lightly explanatory and nifty branding. The volumes are intelligently displayed in glass cases by their relevant age. It’s by no means obtrusive, but it’s hard to escape the brilliance of the framing in those ages, appropriated in turn from works that managed to make it through to not just the modern day, but to make it through to continue shaping it.

And the works are quite the marvel to behold.

During the launch great thanks were extended to everyone for their support whether scholarly, curated or visionary. Metamorphosis is an impressive achievement of application and a worthy tribute to the reason Shakespeare survived. To have crafted a wonderfully balanced and branded exhibit on an undeniably minimal turnaround and budget, one that goes to the essence of Shakespeare’s popularity itself, is no mean feat. The loan of Tom Phillips Library at Elsinore, another wry tough, sat at the library entrance, is just one of the fine indications of that.

In all, a fine reason to soak in the surroundings of an incredible library. To stick with As You Like It, “I like this place… And could willingly waste my time in it.”

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis is open until 17 September 2016 at the Senate House Library. Entrance is free and details and further dates in the programme of public events can be found at

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