The Wren Library’s Capell Collection of Shakespeare’s plays featured on BBC Look East on 21 March as part of events marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Edward Capell was an inspector of plays in the eighteenth century, responsible for reading new playscripts and censoring any material considered scandalous or politically sensitive. He took it upon himself to investigate the ‘original’ versions of Shakespeare’s plays and in 1767-68 he published his landmark edition, in ten volumes. In 1779 Capell gave 245 volumes to Trinity, where they have remained ever since.
Trinity Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell said the rare collection was one of the many highlights of the Wren Library:
It would be quite impossible for anyone to assemble such a remarkable collection of Shakespeare’s lifetime publications today. The early quarto editions of the plays hardly ever come up for sale now, but Capell managed to collect 55 of them, all available to researchers in the Wren Library today.
Reporter Shaun Peel was looking for images for the BBC Shakespeare Festival 2016, which will chart regional performances through the ages, feature leading actors in new productions – including Benedict Cumberbatch, Maxine Peak and Judi Dench – and inspire novel dramas, new music and even a sitcom with David Mitchell. The festival launches on 23 April – the day that Shakespeare was born in 1564 and the day he died 52 years later.
When Peel learnt of Trinity’s rich trove of Shakespeariana, the stage was set for early morning filming in the Wren, pieces-to-camera in Nevile’s Court and careful close-ups of the most famous lines, printed more than 300 years ago. Dr Bell thinks Capell would approve of the current celebrations:
Capell would surely have been reassured that Shakespeare’s flame continues to burn brightly 400 years after his death. He would also be pleased that the careful editorial principles which he first established, comparing all the surviving source materials before deciding on the best text of a play, were taken up and expanded by many later generations of Shakespeare scholars.
Indeed, it’s a mistake to think of Shakespeare’s words as being set in stone says Dr Joe Moshenska, Director of Studies in English at Trinity. Actors and directors were constantly reinventing Shakespeare’s language and plot to suit the perceived needs of audiences at the time.
At the end of the 17th century, for example, King Lear was given a happy ending – in the belief that audiences could not bear Shakespeare’s tragic finale – and the play was performed that way for a century and a half.
Dr Moshenska likes to bring his students to the Wren to view the collections, and to help them understand the interventions made by editors over the centuries.
Often they are surprised and even scandalized by the idea that the language was altered and plots were twisted through the ages. Despite the regular ‘outrage’ at reinventions of Shakespeare today, that’s hardly new. If anything, twenty-first century productions which transform his plays are continuing a process that began in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when the text was open to constant revision and improvisation. As virtually no manuscripts handwritten by Shakespeare have survived, we cannot know for sure what he intended – but it’s more interesting not to know.
Selected plays from the Capell Collection will be on display in the Wren Library from 23 April. The Wren Library is open to the public, Monday-Friday, 12-2pm. Entry is free but will be restricted at busy times.
An excerpt of Shaun Peel’s report about the Capell Collection can be seen on BBC LookEast.