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Leicester Special Collections


Shakespeare Droeshout Portrait

Shakespeare's Droeshout Portrait as published in the First Folio, 1623. Image courtesy: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The texts which were highly influential on Shakespeare’s work are quite well known and researched. There is a long tradition of scholarship that helps us understand the importance of the books Shakespeare read and how he used them when writing his plays and poems. Firstly, there is a body of research that dates back to the 19th century which informs us about the curriculum of the Elizabethan grammar-school, which Shakespeare most likely attended. Secondly, there are reliable records that tell us which texts were published and/ or circulated as manuscripts in the period and to which Shakespeare must have had access.

However, more important than identifying verbal echoes of such texts in the body of Shakespeare’s work is to understand how he incorporated concepts and weaved the ideas he came across in his reading into the fabric of his poetic and dramatic writing. Above all, one of the most striking features of Shakespeare’s compositional approach is the way he transformed and diverged from his source materials when crafting his own work. While this textual metamorphosis possibly delighted Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, such allusions and references are very likely to be lost to most contemporary audiences and readers in the 21st century. The objective of this exhibition is hence to help us better understand Shakespeare’s ability to draw on the material available to him and transform it into the plays and poems we know and admire.

When organizing this exhibition we had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out considering the vast resources held by Archives and Special Collections. The exhibition starts with the works of the classic writers, Ovid and Plutarch, who Shakespeare must have first encountered at school. It then moves into the early 16th century history chronicles of Holinshed and Hall, which served as sources for Shakespeare’s English history plays. The influence of religion on Shakespeare is highlighted by the inclusion in this exhibition of copies of the Bible and other religious writings. These are followed by the writings of influential continental thinkers, who Shakespeare encountered during his adult life reading.

The exhibition closes with the output of Shakespeare’s extensive reading: the plays and poems published in different editions. We single out King Lear and Richard III among Shakespeare's dramatic work due to their relevance to the City and the University of Leicester.

To accompany this online exhibition, we have also produced a companion publication that focuses on the highlights of this exhibition.