A newly redesigned website from Emory University, Shakespeare & the Players, displays a collection of nearly a thousand photo postcards of actors depicting Shakespearean characters on stage, in the late -19th and early-20th centuries. The site is browseable by actor, character, and play.
In the 19th century, scholar Lawrence W. Levine writes, many Americans, even if illiterate, knew and loved Shakespeare’s plays; they were the source material for endless parodies, skits, and songs on the American stage. Nor was Shakespeare fandom confined to the elite; in the first half of the 19th century, theater “played the role that movies played in the first half of the twentieth … a kaleidoscopic, democratic institution presenting a widely varying bill of fare to all classes and socioeconomic groups.”
Given this context, it makes sense that, later in the same century, beloved actors in Shakespeare’s plays would come to grace these picture postcards, collected and sent by British and American fans. In his preface to the site, Harry Rusche, the scholar who put together this collection, writes that exchanging photo postcards was an extremely common pastime in the late-19th and early-20th centuries: “Everyone, it seems, bought, mailed, and collected postcards; even Queen Victoria had her own collection of cards.”
The website calculates that the most popular characters represented in the collection are Juliet, Romeo, and Henry V, with Hamlet and Othello rounding out the top five; the most popular plays: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello.