Shakespeare vs Birmingham

Exhibition   Learning   Secondary School  

“If we had to shoot films of Shakespeare’s plays in our city today where would our locations be and what would we use as our props?”

This was the simple challenge set to all Year 7 students at University of Birmingham School. Their answers, some simple and direct, others witty and playful, are documented in photographs they took around the city as their homework.

After studying these photographs Year 13 Art Students searched the Shakespeare Memorial Library collection for images of these same plays staged at different times around the world.

The result was a series diptychs placing the artifice of the theatrical stage alongside the reality of the world around us. These were displayed on screen and prints in the Shakespeare Memorial Library on the top floor of the Library of Birmingham along with original photographic prints props and the texts that follow. More than 24,000 people visited the exhibition.

Shakespeare vs Birmingham: Props
Surveying Shakespeare’s plays we noticed some props reoccurring regularly. Daggers and swords are used in the many fights. Rings often symbolise love or power or confirm identity. Poisons and potions are administered. Letters bring news.

We also identified iconic props linked with individual plays. In The Merchant of Venice scales are brought on to measure out a pound of flesh. In Othello Desdemona’s embroidered handkerchief causes raging jealousy. At the end of Richard III the King is famously missing a prop – “my kingdom for a horse!”

Shakespeare vs Birmingham: Settings
We recognised many of Shakespeare’s plays are set abroad in countries that four hundred years ago, when he was writing them, would have seemed distant and exotic. Birmingham is our home, so it’s difficult to make it feel distant and exotic, however we could still find most of the locations we required.

A heath, woodland, a battlefield, a castle, a balcony, a graveyard, a church, a cave, a magical island Etc.

Shakespeare vs Birmingham: Characters
Extraordinary, memorable characters are at the heart of all Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps more than the stories these are what help make his plays so special. We identified a number of characters that interested us and talked about how to cast them. Ultimately, however we were mostly too embarrassed to photograph our family and friends so we are leaving this to you.

On 26th September 11:00 – 16:00 we will be here with a professional photographer to take your photograph as a Shakespearian character to add to this exhibition. We wonder who you would like to be?

Shakespeare vs Birmingham: Production Photographs
During lockdown we made a version of this exhibition using images found on the internet – it was fantastically colourful and diverse. The version you see today uses images from the collection and, though the collection includes 15,000 photographs from productions between 1899 and 1990s, it does not represent the explosion of varied interpretations of Shakespeare seen in recent years. This exhibition is narrower than our sketch version, but we have learnt to appreciate it in a new way.

These production photographs all capture a moment of shared endeavour. They show pride and enthusiasm, people of another time making their own interpretation of the plays, utilising the resources they have to hand.

Shakespeare vs Birmingham: Imagination
Shakespeare worked as part of a team, he relied on the actors and crew of his company. In turn his company relied on its audience to watch the plays with their imaginations switched on. Only with an audience’s collaboration does the stage magic happen.

The same is true of this exhibition. We need you to imagine Prospero and Miranda on the traffic island and Juliet in the tower block. Pretend this is Venice. Let’s see magic on our streets.

For copyright reasons diptychs from the exhibition cannot be shared online.


Shakespeare Vs Birmingham was commissioned by Library of Birmingham and University of Birmingham as part of their Everything To Everybody project. This project is to preserve, catalogue, digitise and share the library’s vast Shakespeare Collection.

Created by
Year 7 (photographs) and Year 13 (curation)
with James Yarker

Book by
Craig Stephens
James Yarker
with Ming De Nasty

Carys Jones with Ming De Nasty

Thanks to
The staff and students at University Of Birmingham School
The Everything to Everybody team at Library of Birmigham especially: Lucy Kamenova, Nicola Gauld, Lauren Jansen-Parkes, Richard Albutt, Helen Anettes Tom Epps
For Stan’s Cafe: Dave Howard, Lucy Bird and Natalie Hart

Exhibition Dates

  • 16 Feb – 23 May, 2022
    Library of Birmingham

Workshop Images