In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, a number of Vassar faculty have joined forces to create a semester-long exhibit at the Thompson Memorial Library, “Shakespeare at Vassar,” that showcases Vassar’s longstanding and multifaceted relationship with the Bard.
To kick off the event, a reception featuring short student performances of Shakespeare, as well as talks by each of the faculty curators, will be held Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the Class of ’51 Reading Room.
“It’s not that we’re sort of looking inward at Vassar—although we are—but it also shows how Vassar really connects to some important developments in Shakespeare,” explained Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections Ron Patkus.
Patkus, one of the five faculty curators involved with this project, contributed items from the Special Collections Library relating to Shakespeare, including everything from 17th-century folios of his works to fine press editions from the early 20th century.
Of course, Vassar’s own Shakespeare Garden is the most visible reminder of the campus’s historical reverence for the playwright and Associate Professor of English Leslie Dunn dedicated her portion of the exhibit to its history at the College.
“I’ve always loved the Shakespeare Garden,” Dunn explained in an emailed statement. “I’ve taught classes there (in one memorable Shakespeare class, one of my students staged the duel from Hamlet with two friends who were on the fencing team!), and have often found refuge there, either by myself or with my dog, for quiet walks and contemplation. But when we started planning the exhibit and I volunteered to research the history of the Shakespeare Garden, I became deeply committed to preserving its future as well as its past.”
She continued, “I am hoping that the College will mark its centenary by once again raising awareness and funds for its renovation. Ideally it should have its own endowment, as some other gardens on the campus already do. And I would be happy to organize a group of students to plant flowers and herbs this fall, just as the students did 100 years ago.”
Likewise, Associate Professor of English Zoltan Markus dedicated a portion of the exhibit to the history of Shakespeare classes over the years. The section will include curricula from previously taught Shakespeare classes, as well as photographs of past Vassar professors of Shakespeare classes and the syllabi from these courses.
A fourth section will be dedicated to a performance history of Shakespeare’s plays at Vassar, compiled by Professor of Drama Denise Walen, including photos of past performances, posters for the events and directors’ playbooks.
The final component, compiled by Elizabeth Nogrady, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs, will be housed in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. This exhibition is entitled “For Through the Painter Must You See His Skill: Shakespeare in Art from the Permanent Collection,” and will be housed in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from Sept. 21 to Dec. 23.
Nogrady explained that the dozen or so works selected for the art exhibition feature subjects taken from Shakespeare.
In an emailed statement, Nogrady wrote, “Leslie [Dunn] and I worked together to find objects that were not only fine works of art, but also particularly compelling examples of artists’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s texts … We chose only the best of the best, as there are many more examples of Shakespeare-related art in the collection. As the Mellon Curator of Academic Programs, I seek to build connections between the Art Center and other departments across campus. This exhibition fits this mission beautifully, as it joins the interdisciplinary events happening across campus this year in conjunction with the Shakespeare 400th anniversary year.”
Nogrady continued, “The paintings, drawings, and prints in the exhibition date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, and several of them are from the gift of art presented by Matthew Vassar at the founding of the college. We aim to show that in addition to literature and drama, the work of Shakespeare was also integrated on campus, from the college’s earliest days, through fine art.”
In an effort to compile the vast history of Shakespeare at Vassar, a catalogue of photos and essays by each of the faculty curators will be available at the exhibit itself. Written in the area of expertise of each faculty member, the essays feature especially memorable moments in Vassar’s Shakespearian history, such as photographs of an all-female 1906 production of “Romeo and Juliet,” an account of anonymous Vassar students holding library books for ransom in exchange for the restoration of the Shakespeare Garden and a special nod to Emily Jordan Folger, graduate of the Class of 1879 and co-founder of the esteemed Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
“They’re substantial essays,” Patkus explained. “Very accessible though, very interesting … It’s going to be a great publication.”
In the catalogue’s preface, Director of Libraries Andrew Ashton reflected, “The impact of William Shakespeare’s work can be seen across life at Vassar—from the boundless exploration of Shakespeare in the curriculum, to the many vibrant performances staged at Vassar over the years, to the spaces on campus… [Shakespeare’s] endurance testifies both to the depth of Shakespeare’s work and to its unique suitability to the ever-evolving traditions of liberal education.”
While customs of education and performance continue to evolve, the Bard’s work remains unshakably constant. Who knows? Perhaps in another hundred years, a new generation of professors and students will be celebrating another centennial in Shakespeare’s life and paying homage to performances and classes of Shakespeare yet to happen.