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The Bodleian Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, Shakespeare’s Dead, is now open till 18th September. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the focus is on death in his plays, and in the literature of his time. On display is of course the First Folio, the first playbook (Romeo and Juliet), the first edition of Venus and Adonis, and a variety of other objects, like an exquisite Book of Hours, with gilded pages and decorations of drawings of skulls, and – as great interest for me as a theologian and born Lutheran – an original pamphlet of the Augsburg Confession. It is a well-curated and visually interesting exhibition, and full of marvelous objects, as the Weston Library exhibitions always, so I highly recommend a visit.

The official opening was on Thursday, and I was delighted to be there. Here’s an added reason why:
img_4416To open the exhibition, The Bodleian had invited Oxford’s coolest daughter, Dame Maggie Smith. She was given the Bodley Medal for her services to theatre, and she had brought with her a past recipient of the award, Alan Bennett. Yes, that Alan Bennett. You know it’s a decent party when Alan Bennett is there, and this wasn’t an exception.

Dame Maggie made a funny in her speech – she opened it by telling that she hasn’t died – not yet, anyway. In a witty nod to the theme of the exhibition, she told about the two times she’s died in a Shakespeare play – one of them unremarkable (“In Macbeth, it’s the most pleasant way to die on stage really, one just sort of wanders around.”), the other terrifying: she played Desdemona with Laurence Olivier as Othello (“He didn’t think much of me.”), and feared for her life every night. By the time Olivier got to the line “Down, strumpet!” towards the end of the play, he would ram a pillow on her face and keep pressing it down, and once Desdemona was dead, he’d leave it there. Then Emilia’s body would be thrown over her, so there she’d lie, pillow on her face, the body on top of her, trying to catch her breath while Olivier stabs himself in the neck. He’d then lie on top of her to kiss her, covering her in his dark greasepaint and filling her mouth (she mimicked this bit) with pieces of his fake beard. One somehow got an impression that Dame Maggie didn’t think much more of Olivier either… I was lucky enough to briefly chat to both her and Alan Bennett, as well as to some other interesting Oxford types – OED editors, Shakespeare scholars, people working for the library itself. I also have an uncanny ability to find the people with a connection to my place of employment, and so this time ended up talking to a parent of a former pupil. It was simply amazing, and I’m not going pretend otherwise.

Shakespeare’s Dead is on till 18th September in the ST Lee Gallery in the Weston Library.

Youtube has a trailer of the NT Othello, in all its hideously dated “glory”, with introduction by Olivier himself.

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