Shakespeare’s plays contain memorable images, and these are often used for posters created to advertise performances. Think of the skull in Hamlet, the dagger in Macbeth, or Bottom’s donkey head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But beyond these stock ideas, there is a wealth of material that can be used to sum up a Shakespeare play in a single image.
Presenting Shakespeare, by Mirko Ilić and Steven Heller, gathers 1,100 posters from Shakespeare plays around the world. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) In 320 pages, about 19 by 29 cm, it presents some of the posters full-page, but most of them four or more to a page. This is fine; theater posters are meant to be seen from a distance, so the size doesn’t detract from them.
Grouping posters from certain plays – such as Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello – gives an interesting perspective on how these works are seen around the world. There are differences, some linked to specific cultures, but there are many similarities. Leafing through this book, you can appreciate just how complex Shakespeare’s plays are, that they can lend themselves to such a variety of visual interpretations.
Some of these posters are stunning; some are images that could be used for almost any play. Some are quite old, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when all that was used was text, but most are more recent, and show a diverse range of visual styles.
My only regret is that when there are actors pictured on the posters, their names are not mentioned in captions. For some of them, the actors’ names are on the poster, but for most they are not. I would be interested in knowing who many of the actors are. But that doesn’t detract from the visual aspect of this book, which is a compact hardcover printed on matte paper, and at a very affordable price. (Currently about $35 or £20 from Amazon.)
This is a fascinating book if you’re interested in Shakespeare, or in design. You’ll find a surprising range of approaches to the plays, and see the full gamut of the design of this type of poster around the world.