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.
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.
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’).
“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