This week the BBC launched Shakespeare on Tour, a new website sharing hundreds of stories about Shakespeare performances in every corner of England spanning over four centuries . Around half of the stories are sourced from the British Library‚Äôs enormous collection of theatre playbills, which have been the subject of my PhD research for the past two and half years.
A collection of playbills from miscellaneous Newcastle-upon-Tyne theatres 1791-1855, image courtesy of the British Library
The Library‚Äôs collection of playbills is one of the biggest in the world ‚Äď there are over 200,000 individual playbills mostly dating from the late-18th to the late-19th centuries designed to entice theatre-goers to performances in their local area. A significant proportion of the playbills advertise performances of William Shakespeare plays, which is testament to how popular his works were with theatre companies during this period.
When I first started research for my PhD, which is a collaborative doctoral placement run between the University of Nottingham and the British Library, I was taken down to the Library‚Äôs vast basements in St Pancras to see the collection as a whole, and was somewhat daunted by the sight that greeted me: row upon row of oversize red volumes, each containing hundreds and hundreds of playbills.
One of the British Library's volume of theatre playbills, image courtesy of the British Library
Many of them are extremely fragile, since playbills were intended to be thrown away soon after a production was completed, and it is only thanks to a few major collectors we have them in the national collections today. Gradually, as I worked my way through these volumes, I became more familiar with these documents and the theatrical culture to which they belonged. I began to notice unusual or quirky productions, and at times got slightly side-tracked attempting to track down further information about performers that had captured my imagination.
One of my favourite stories was that of a child performer known as the ‚ÄėInfant Kean‚Äô. A playbill from 1830 documents his performance at Nottingham Theatre in the role of Macbeth when he was just six years old! Although I found a place in my thesis for this case study, many others seemed destined to languish in my notes.
Then, in November 2014 I was invited to present a taster of my research to the BBC at a workshop run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who funded my collaborative PhD with the British Library. I met another scholar there, Dr Siobhan Keenan, who has researched provincial performance in Shakespeare‚Äôs lifetime. We began discussions with the BBC about sharing this with the public, and Shakespeare on Tour is the final product.
I hope that this project will inspire others to delve into the British Library's Shakespeare collections, especially as thousands of digitised playbills are now available online.
There are more fantastic digitised Shakespeare artefacts on the British Library's new Shakespeare website www.bl.uk/shakespeare, and you can see a selection of playbills on display in the British Library's upcoming exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, opening 15 April.
The British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council offer a number of collaborative research placements every year. Find out more online here.
By Hannah Manktelow