A previously unseen diary will shed light on Shakespeare’s personality as part of major new exhibition at the British Library. The exhibition also includes the only surviving play script in the writer’s hand.
The British Library has also announced it has acquired the personal archive of Carry On actor Kenneth Williams.
The new Shakespeare exhibition is called Shakespeare in Ten Acts and will run at the British Library from April to September next year, marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. It will also include two playbills connected with Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello.
The library said the exhibition would offer a “vivid insight into Shakespeare’s character”, though an entry written into a diary from a law student called John Manningham in 1602. On display for the first time, Manningham’s diary recounts a story about Shakespeare and his friend, the actor Richard Burbage, in which Shakespeare steals an invitation for Burbage to visit a female fan after his performance in Richard III at the Globe. The entry reveals Shakespeare sent back the message: “William the Conqueror was before Richard the 3”.
Other items in the exhibition, which the library said would “explore the changing nature of Shakespeare’s reputation”. include the only surviving play script in Shakespeare’s hand and one of only six authentic Shakespeare signatures. It also includes rare printed editions including the First Folio, and a range of film, paintings, photographs, costumes and props.
Two theatre playbills following the career of Aldridge are included too, and are dated either side of the abolition of slavery. The library said the two playbills “demonstrate the lengths to which he went to promote himself and challenge perceptions in an era when racist views were the norm”.
Meanwhile, the personal archive of Kenneth Williams has been acquired by the library, including 43 diaries and around 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. The archive has been acquired from Paul Richardson, Williams’ friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.
Richardson said: “I am delighted that the Kenneth Williams’ diaries and letters are now at the British Library… I feel this is the perfect place for his diaries and letters to be, preserved for the future and to be appreciated by the public and scholars.”