On World Book Day, seek Shakespeare at his “hidden corner” in Australia’s Sydney

Every year on April 23, when World Book Day coincides with the death anniversary of William Shakespeare, a hidden gem in the heart of Australia’s Sydney will open its door and welcome bookworms as promised.

Overlooking Shakespeare Place and guarded by a life-sized Shakespeare statue, the Shakespeare Room tends to keep a low profile on the ground floor of the New South Wales (NSW) State Library, with its door shut most of the time.

However, once a visitor walks into this secret chamber, it all clicks why the staff would regard the library as “the home of Shakespeare in Australia” — not only for its massive book collections on the Bard of Avon, but also for the room as a cherry on top.

Completed in the early 1940s, the 21-square-meter room was inspired by the style of the Tudor dynasty, a period that spanned the majority of Shakespeare’s life.

The iconic Tudor Roses dot the door and the intricately designed plaster ceiling, while Shakespeare’s family crest is carved above the entrance, with the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I appearing inside the room.

The floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves house a total of over 1,000 volumes. “They are all about Shakespeare, about Shakespeare’s works, or the different versions of his plays,” said Maggie Patton, head of collection acquisition and curation at the NSW State Library.

As many old and rare versions were transferred to secure storage, most books currently stored in the Shakespeare Room were printed in the 20th century, robust enough for people to grab them off the shelf and leaf through.

“This is only a representation. We actually have thousands of books about Shakespeare in our collection that aren’t in this room,” said Patton.

“We also have a lot of books in different languages. We have Japanese, Yiddish, Chinese … all sorts of different translations of Shakespeare’s works in other rooms.”

But a crown jewel of the library’s collection remains well-preserved inside the Shakespeare Room, which is the First Folio published in 1623 — the only known copy held in Australia.

“I think there are about 236 copies (surviving today). Occasionally, they found one. But a census was done suggesting that there are around 230. And the only copy in Australia is the one we have here,” said Patton.

Sealed in an antique reading stand, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays stays open to page 194, where the melancholy Jaques began his famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue in the pastoral comedy “As You Like It.”

The reflection on life, conveyed through words, also had a pictorial echo on the windows of the Shakespeare Room, as Sydney artist Arthur Benfield portrayed “Seven Ages of Man” on the stained glass.

“These are the seven ages of everyone that we may all go through,” said Patton. For the curator, a significant feature of Shakespeare’s plays is that they are often taken from real life and are examples of real people.

Gazing at the glass while contemplating on what books have changed her life, Patton said that reading is a way of seeing somebody else’s perspective of the world.

“You can live in your own narrow bubble of how you see the world and how you’ve experienced the world. But when you read other people, you get to see someone else’s perspective. You can travel to another century or you can travel to another country,” she said.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

To celebrate the special occasion and invite more people to experience the perspective of the English playwright, Patton also revealed that a new chapter would unfold for the Shakespeare Room, as it is set to open permanently — seven days a week — for the first time in its history.

“It’s about letting more people see it, because we often get people coming in on the weekend and wanting to see it, tourists coming in all time, and it just seemed right to have it open all the time,” Patton added.

In an interview with Xinhua, Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian at NSW State Library, introduced that the library’s Shakespeare Room was first conceived by Sydneysiders in 1912 to honor the 300th anniversary of his death in 1916.

But World War I intervened and it was not until the late 1930s that the room itself could be constructed.

“The room is a beautiful reminder of the importance of literature and reading, and the long traditions of reading and writing symbolized by Shakespeare: traditions also celebrated by many cultures and countries,” said the librarian.

In the eyes of Neville, the cliches about Shakespeare’s genius are true, with little more can be said.

“No matter whether he wrote them, or how much he was building on the works of his peers and his editors, the plays and poems that have come down to us are (mostly) miracles of literature,” he said.

Growing up with books in the family home and having worked with them as a historian and librarian all his life, Neville saw reading as a fundamental part of his engagement with the world.

“I also do worry that social media has diluted our capacity to focus on longer-form writing. If you are reading a book, leave your digital device in another room, so you will not be tempted and distracted,” Neville suggested.

As a judge of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia, Neville said that he would spend his World Book Day re-reading entries for the prize.

Apart from the daily opening of the Shakespeare Room, the NSW State Library is also working on an exhibition that will be launched in July.

The rare First Folio, along with the Second, Third and Forth Folios also held by the library, will take center stage during the exhibition. ■

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