Staging the World: Review

 

The British Museum is soon to stage a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition provides an insight ‘into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.’ It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and runs from 19 July – 25 November 2012.

The British Museum Press has released several publications to compliment the exhibition, and kindly sent me review copies. A further book on Shakespeare and Food is forthcoming shortly. The titles I’m reviewing here are Shakespeare: Staging The World, Shakespeare’s Britain, and Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals,

First up is the rather splendid ShakespeareStaging The World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. This is a big beautiful book, which considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare; its premise being that the things he, his players, and his audience saw, ‘mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision of the world.’ This is cleverly illustrated by the juxtaposition of a stunning collection of early modern objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plays.

To look at a woodcut of a Jewish household in Venice and a sixteenth-century Caribbean wood carving of a spirit imprisoned in a tree and a pack of playing cards in which Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth appear side-by-side is to be given a new historical and intellectual perspective on the characters of Shylock, Ariel and Cleopatra.

The book not only serves as a catalogue of the objects on display at the exhibition, it features a rich and detailed commentary by the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, and the exhibition’s curator, Dora Thornton, which in and of itself enriches both existing scholarship, and our knowledge of daily life in early modern England. The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which explores a specific theme and the objects which serve to bring it to life. For example, Chapter One gives an overview of London in 1612; a World City. It provides a narrative of aspects of London life at this time, and considers the theatres as bustling commercial enterprises. One of the most compelling objects featured in this chapter is a surviving turned oak baluster excavated from the site of the Rose theatre. It may have been part of the safety rail around the upper galleries:

 

© The Trustees of The British Museum

 

Subsequent chapters explore Country, County and Custom, Kingship and the English Nation, The Legacy of Rome, Venice Viewed from London, The Noble Moor, The Scottish Play, and the Matter of Britain. Each is illustrated throughout with truly mouth-watering photographs, illustrations, maps, and woodcuts. One of my favourite objects is this Horn-book from the late 1600s, comprising a sheet of printed paper protected by a layer of horn, similar to the one from which Shakespeare himself would have learned his alphabet and Lord’s Prayer while at school:

 

© The Trustees of The British Museum

 

One of the many facts I discovered while reading Staging The World, is that in 1571, a statute was enacted enforcing the wearing of woolly caps by everyone over the age of six on Sundays and holidays. This knitted man’s cap was found in Moorfields, London and dates to the mid-sixteenth century:

 

 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Perhaps my favourite object is this lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes. It was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. It’s made from sheet iron and would originally have had a horn window so it could be completely closed to hide the lighted candle within:
 © The Trustees of The British Museum



Shakespeare: Staging The World is more than just a museum catalogue, it’s a stunning collection of early modern objects brought vividly to life by Jonathan Bates and Dora Thornton. I’d endorse it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or early modern England. For the Shakespeare scholar it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf, for the historian it’s a smorgasbord of early modern artifacts. For the general reader it’s a beautifully illustrated and informative guide to the world of Shakespeare. Highly recommended. Shakespeare: Staging The World, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£25).
*
A smaller, shorter version of Staging The World can be found in Shakespeare’s Britain, also by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. It contains a condensed overview of some of the objects found in Staging The World and has a specific focus on Shakespeare and Britain; a theme which preoccupied the playwright in his later years, and one which was ushered in by James I who longed for a unified kingdom. Perfect for someone who wants to get a flavour of the period, it neatly encapsulates Shakespeare’s Britain with lavish illustrations. I particularly love the cover image, which comes from a watercolour entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ painted by Michael Van Meer in 1619, and depicts some rather fancy-looking people enjoying a trip across the Thames to Bankside, perhaps to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s Britain, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99)
The final book, Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals, is a fascinating catalogue of the coins on display at the exhibition. As anyone who’s been forced to admire my Elizabethan sixpence will testify, I do love sixteenth and seventeenth century coins. Not because I have any interest in numismatics, but because they give us pause to wonder just who’s pocket they’ve been in, and as such, they connect us with history in a real and immediate way.
© The Trustees of The British Museum
The above ducat dates from the office of Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice from 1595-1605. Ducats were, in origin, ‘the defining gold coin of Venice, but the term also meant any coin of the same standard and it was widely used and familiar.’
Another coin, perhaps my favourite, is a milled sixpence dated 1562, depicting the profile of Elizabeth I. It’s in much better condition than my own. Milled sixpences were machine-made coins circulated in the early 1560s at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. They were treasured at the time, and often used as reckoning-counters.
    © The Trustees of The British Museum

As well as using sixpences as counters, specially-made counters were available for accountants, and a bag or cylinder of counters served as an early modern calculator. The Clown, in The Winter’s Tale, talks of his need for counters before he goes shopping:

I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see, what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice?
(4.3.32-4)

Below is a set of silver counters depicting the Stuart royal family, dating to the 1600s. The accompanying silver box holds all twenty-nine counters.

 

 © The Trustees of The British Museum
Angels and Ducats fulfils a valuable role. It enables us to see for the first time exactly what the coins Shakespeare refers to in his plays actually look like. In this way this book enriches our understanding of both Shakespeare’s work and his life. Angels and Ducats is essential reading for anyone interested in the themes of money and finance on the London stage, but beyond that it is a wonderful introduction to the variety of coins in circulation in early modern England. Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99).
All three offerings from The British Museum Press are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. If I had to recommend one, it would be Shakespeare: Staging The World, since it covers all the objects included in the exhibition. However Shakespeare’s Britain is a neat precis of some of the objects on display and Angels and Ducats is unique in its study of specific coins in England during this period. If you’re intending to visit the exhibition then any or all of the books are a great way to familiarise yourself with the history of the objects on display. If you can’t make the exhibition then each of the books serves as charming compensation. But in their own right, all three deserve a place on any bookshelf.
The books can be bought via The British Museum Bookshop online. Tickets for the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World can be bought here.
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2 Comments

  • May 14, 2012 - 10:38 am | Permalink

    The horn window in the lantern would have been translucent, as near as glass as the ordinary man in the street could get, and thin sheets of delaminated cow’s horn were used as filler for windows and other small spaces where light needed to get through until surprisingly recent times. Lantern is a derivative of lant-horn.

  • May 13, 2012 - 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Great review Dainty, superb writing. Made me want to get all three. I’ll have to think about it! I think your old sixpence has the edge over all those other well preserved ones. Ducats, reminds me of Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. The way he pronounces It. Thanks for telling us about the exhibition, I’d love to see it.
    George

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