1,000 Vintage Postcards Show Famous Actors Performing Shakespeare’s Plays from 1880 to 1914


We’ll nev­er ful­ly know how any­thing looked in Shake­speare’s time, much less how the Bard’s own plays did when first per­formed on the stage of the Globe The­atre. Thor­ough schol­ar­ship of his­to­ry in gen­er­al and Shake­speare in par­tic­u­lar has enabled us to imag­ine and recon­struct such a sight with rea­son­able cred­i­bil­i­ty, but only so much direct accu­ra­cy, since the devel­op­ment of pho­tog­ra­phy would­n’t hap­pen for a cou­ple hun­dred years. But not long after human­i­ty got its pho­tog­ra­phers did those pho­tog­ra­phers begin tak­ing pic­tures of human­i­ty’s best-known dra­mas, and a set of par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid exam­ples sur­vives on Emory Uni­ver­si­ty’s relaunched web site Shake­speare and the Play­ers.


The site describes itself as “an online exhi­bi­tion of near­ly 1,000 post­cards fea­tur­ing many famous Eng­lish and Amer­i­can actors who per­formed Shakespeare’s plays for late Vic­to­ri­an and Edwar­dian audi­ences,” speci­fi­cial­ly from around 1880 to 1914. It “show­cas­es post­cards fea­tur­ing the dom­i­nat­ing actors of the time in roles from some of the more pop­u­lar and oft-per­formed plays, like Ham­let and Romeo & Juli­et, as well as those from plays not often per­formed, like Cym­be­line and The Mer­ry Wives of Wind­sor.”


Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion refers to schol­ar Lawrence W. Levine, who writes of how, in the 19th cen­tu­ry, “many Amer­i­cans, even if illit­er­ate, knew and loved Shake­speare’s plays; they were the source mate­r­i­al for end­less par­o­dies, skits, and songs on the Amer­i­can stage. Nor was Shake­speare fan­dom con­fined to the elite; in the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the­ater ‘played the role that movies played in the first half of the twen­ti­eth … a kalei­do­scop­ic, demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tion pre­sent­ing a wide­ly vary­ing bill of fare to all class­es and socioe­co­nom­ic groups.’ ”


Shake­speare and the Play­ers first went live back in the 1990s, a project of Eng­lish pro­fes­sor Har­ry Rusche, who has writ­ten an infor­ma­tive pref­ace for the site in its recent­ly redesigned form (with its images com­plete­ly re-dig­i­tized). “Post­cards on Shake­speare appeared in a dizzy­ing array of con­texts,” he explains, “some humor­ous and some seri­ous; these cards of actors were only a small part of Shake­speare and of the card-indus­try as a whole.” A “mania for col­lect­ing” swept up their con­tem­po­rary buy­ers, not to men­tion an appre­ci­a­tion for the stars of the day: “hand­some men and beau­ti­ful women are always pop­u­lar in any medi­um.”


But plen­ty of them actu­al­ly used these post­cards for their intend­ed pur­pose, about which you can learn more on the site’s post­card backs sec­tion. It notes that “the philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da, in The Post­card, encour­ages us to read the two con­flict­ing, yet res­onat­ing scenes — in our case, the Shake­speare image and the hand­writ­ing on the back — two sides of the post­cards togeth­er,” an expe­ri­ence that may “be espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing to those of us born in the age of email, video con­fer­ences, Twit­ter, and text mes­sag­ing,” those who will now won­der when a set of Shake­speare emo­ji will come along, pro­vid­ing us a means of con­tin­u­ing to incor­po­rate these eter­nal char­ac­ters into our cor­re­spon­dence today.

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Shake­speare Cours­es: Primers on the Bard from Oxford, Har­vard, Berke­ley & More

Read All of Shakespeare’s Plays Free Online, Cour­tesy of the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library

Shakespeare’s Rest­less World: A Por­trait of the Bard’s Era in 20 Pod­casts

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe The­atre

What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like to Shake­speare: Recon­struct­ing the Bard’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Hear What Ham­let, Richard III & King Lear Sound­ed Like in Shakespeare’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Drunk Shake­speare: The Trendy Way to Stage the Bard’s Plays in the US & the UK

Tol­stoy Calls Shake­speare an “Insignif­i­cant, Inartis­tic Writer”; 40 Years Lat­er, George Orwell Weighs in on the Debate

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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