How similar were Shakespeare and Austen?
More than other literary favourites, William Shakespeare and
Jane Austen are cultural stars, celebrities on a first-name basis
with the reading public who enjoy robust followings centuries after
“Celebrity culture is
not a Justin Bieber event but something that has roots in
history much further back.”
The literary giants are the subjects of "Will & Jane: Shakespeare,
Austen and the Cult of Celebrity," an exhibition at the Folger
Shakespeare Library that promises to examine the similarities between
the authors with humour and insight.
The exhibition, which opens on Aug 6 and runs through Nov 6 in the
Great Hall at the Folger, is part of the museum's 'Wonder of Will'
year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.
It also comes just a year before the 200th anniversary of Austen's
The timing is striking, say curators Janine Barchas and Kristina
Straub, since Austen witnessed the first wave of Shakespeare's celebrity
200 years ago, just as now the world is caught up in the Cult of Jane.
"Some of the parallels between the development of Shakespeare 200
years ago and the celebration of Austen today surprised even us," said
Barchas, professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"When you put an object from the Folger vault next to objects from
collectors or purchased on eBay ... you really recognise celebrity
culture is not a Justin Bieber event but something that has roots in
history much further back."
The exhibition features portraits of the writers, rare editions of
their work, precious relics and low-cost mementos of works associated
On display will be a playbill from a performance of The Merchant of
Venice that Austen attended starring legendary actor Edmund Kean and a
letter in her own hand describing what she saw.
But there will also be objects from the award-winning film
Shakespeare in Love and the white shirt worn by Colin Firth in the 1995
BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The goal is to prod viewers into
considering the role that marketing and material goods play in the
"Of course they are great writers, nobody is disputing that; but
their greatness has a lot to do with the way they circulate in popular
culture," said Straub, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
"My interests have always been on the trashy side. I'm interested in
the way the [demarcation of] high and low culture doesn't make sense."