Exhibit reveals power of the pen

Show: Queen Elizabeth, Mark Twain and others put history in writing.

February 11, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Want to pore over a letter written by A.A. Milne?

Or, instead of a letter from the creator of Winnie the Pooh, would you prefer a note from Queen Elizabeth I?

How about riffling through an Elizabethan vicar's diary? Or perusing a manuscript handwritten by Mark Twain?

You are invited to do so, as part of an exhibition of 100 plays, poems, books, letters, warrants, deeds and receipts spanning 700 years and on display through June 8 at Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library.

Titled "The Pen's Excellencie": Treasures from the Manuscript Collection, the exhibit breathes life into historical figures. In an era of Palm Pilots, e-mails and iMacs, it also reminds us what can be revealed, sometimes unwittingly, when pen is put to paper and the document shredders foregone.

From contracts, manuscripts, games, letters -- even doodles in the margins of books -- library visitors may divine the dreams, arguments, loves and mistakes of those who lived hundreds of years ago. Peer into an Englishman's diary to learn how William Shakespeare died. The small, brown leather book belonged to John Ward, an otherwise ordinary vicar of Stratford-on-Avon. In 1662, Ward noted, somewhat offhandedly: "Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Johnson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted."

Ward's remarks are the only known record of the bard's death.

An 8-foot scroll reveals New Year's gifts given and received by Henry VIII. Signed by the king on both sides, the document lists names in descending order of importance: royal family members, bishops, dukes and "erles."

In celebration of Jan. 1, 1539 (one year before he married Anne of Cleves, wife No. 4), the king received money, a sword of gold, embroidered garments and a book covered in green velvet. From the countess of Hampton he received a "night cap wt cheynes & buttons of golde," and from the marquis of Dorset, a "brase of greyhoundes." His highness handed out gifts of gold.

"I wanted viewers to feel a little closer to the authors' lives or those who worked on these manuscripts," says Heather Wolfe, the Folger curator of manuscripts, who organized the exhibit. "I wanted them to understand the activity of the manuscripts, that they aren't just flat documents. There is a story behind each one."

Mere signatures can be revealing. At the bottom of a letter to Henry IV of France, Elizabeth I signs her name boldly. The capital "E" is as straight as a castle tower and the "b" loops as confidently as a flag in the wind.

But the signature of Sir Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, hints not of confidence, but of intimacy. The queen's nickname for the earl was "Eyes." In a letter concerning her troops, Leicester adorns his signature with two small eyes with squiggles for brows. The Elizabethan equivalent of dotting the i's with hearts? Perhaps.

Wolfe chose from among the collection's 55,000 items when curating the exhibit. Arranged chronologically, it begins with medieval manuscripts and ends with books and letters from the early 20th century. There are sections on medieval manuscripts; royal documents belonging to Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth and James; letters and manuscripts by writers such as Jonathan Swift, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.

Some documents -- such as a 1617 warrant signed by James I releasing Sir Walter Raleigh from the Tower of London -- were chosen for their historical significance, some for their literary importance. Still others were chosen for human interest. Viewing these letters and manuscripts is like peering over their owner's shoulders as they sit at their desks. "I knew the collection would surprise people," Wolfe says.

"I asked myself: `What is the historical significance of this manuscript? Does this offer insight? Does it have potential to surprise or delight? Is it in the author's hand?' "

On display are the Macro manuscripts, consisting of three of four surviving morality plays written in English before 1500. Morality plays, popular in 16th-century England, were allegorical and intended to teach spiritual lessons. Named for its 18th-century owner, the Rev. Cox Macro, the manuscript contains stage directions, descriptions of costumes and a diagram of the stage. "It is one of our greatest treasures," Wolfe says.

A work by Aristotle shows how, in the days before highlighters, scholars marked passages of particular interest. The manuscript, transcribed around 1300 by an unknown Italian writer, is titled "Physica and 11 other works" and is one of the oldest manuscripts at the Folger.

In its margins, the scribe has etched in ink a dragon pointing with extended claws to a paragraph of note. Above, a woman stands with bow and arrow, aiming at a sentence. A third passage is noted by a drawing of a pointing finger.

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