All the world’s a stage – Shakespeare and the poster

A new book, Presenting Shakespeare, brings together over 1,000 posters created for international productions of the playwright’s work, revealing the range of visual approaches to conveying everything from Hamlet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of theatrical surprises

In as much as Shakespeare addresses a range complex human emotions in his plays – from comedy to tragedy, if you like – attempting to convey his work in a poster, distilling the subject matter within a single graphic image, is a challenging task.

xxxxx Top of post: various posters for productions of Romeo and Juliet, including one by Mieczyslaw Gorowski (on right)
Various posters for productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Top of post: various posters for productions of Romeo and Juliet, including one by Mieczyslaw Gorowski (on right)

So well known are the themes of his most famous plays – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example – that advertising them has an inevitable tendency to resort to the same visual ideas: a skull; two “star-crossed” lovers; a magical forest, as in the three plays mentioned above.

But as Mirko Ilic and Steven Heller set out to prove in their exhaustive survey of posters, Presenting Shakespeare: 1,100 Posters from Around the World, there are always interesting new angles through which to approach Shakespeare’s plays, just as there are always new ways in which to present them on stage or screen.

Posters for Hamlet, including one by Henryk Tomaszewski (on right)
Various posters for productions of Hamlet, including one by Henryk Tomaszewski (on right)
Various posters for productions of Julius Caesar, including one by Dan Reisinger (on right)
Various posters for productions of Julius Caesar, including one by Dan Reisinger (on right)
Various posters for productions of Henry V, including one by Paula Scher (on right)
Various posters for productions of Henry V, including one by Paula Scher (on right)

In the book’s introduction, the pair speculate that the earliest forms of advertising for the playwright’s work probably emerged in 1599 to mark the opening of The Globe theatre in Southwark, London.

On top of the building, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the group of players that Shakepeare belonged to – raised a flag depicting Hercules with a globe upon his shoulders, to announce that the play, Julius Caesar, was about to open. The motif also appeared above the entrance to the theatre alongside the inscription ‘Totus mundus agit histrionem’ (‘All the world’s a stage’).

Various posters for productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, including one by Erich Brechbuhl (on right)
Various posters for productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including one by Erich Brechbuhl (on right)
Posters by Lanny Sommese (top left); Marian Nowinski (left); and Boris Bucan (right)
Posters for productions of Othello by Lanny Sommese (top left); Marian Nowinski (left); and Boris Bucan (right)
Posters for Titus Andronicus, including one by Stasys Eidrigevicius (bottom right)
Various posters for productions of Titus Andronicus, including one by Stasys Eidrigevicius (bottom right)

“The Globe raised flags on its small tower thereafter to signal that plays were being performed,” write the authors. “Some showed a symbolic picture, with a simple colour-coding system indicating whether a play was comedy (white), tragedy (black), or history (red). White represented light. Black meant death. Red signalled blood.”

Since then, the way Shakespeare’s plays have been advertised has moved from purely typographic playbills to full colour printed posters, incorporating everything from photography to illustration.

Shown here are just a few examples from this well curated body of work which not only looks at posters created for Shakespeare’s most regularly performed plays, but also examines some of the lesser known productions – in both cases a great range of examples from all over the world have been included.

Published by Princeton Architectural Press (Abrams & Chronicle in the UK), Presenting Shakespeare by Mirko Ilic and Steven Heller is available now; £30. abramsandchronicle.co.uk

Various posters for productions of Macbeth, including one by Franciszek Starowieyski (on left)
Various posters for productions of Macbeth, including one by Franciszek Starowieyski (on left)
Various posters for The Merry Wives of Windsor
Various posters for productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor
Posters for As You Like It, including one by Flag Aubry, Broquard (on right)
Various posters for productions of As You Like It, including one by Flag / Aubry Broquard (on right)
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