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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.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Curiosities Education Entertainment

Fine feats in the water

These fragments come from a lovely 17th century guide to learning to swim. Illustrated throughout, the author provides all the instructions necessary for learning to swim like a fish in an English river.

There are fewe or none which have bestowed any paines in the explayning or publishing this Art of Swimming, it being so profitable a thing as it is, towards the preserving of mans life, when as he is at any time distressed in the greedie jawes of the swelling Sea.

The time which the temperature of this our climate affords as good to swimme in, is comprehended in foure monthes, May, June, July, and August.  In the place is two things especially to be respected, first, that the banks be not overgrowen with rank thicke grasse, where oft-times, do lie and lurke many stinging Serpents, and poisoned Toades: not full of thornes, bryers, stubbes, or thistles, which may offend the bare feete, but that the grasse be short, thinne, and greene, the banke beset with shadie trees, which may be a shelter from the winde, and a shadowe from the parching heate of the Sunne. Next that the water it selfe bee cleare, not troubled with any kinde of slimie filth, which is very infectious to the skinne, that the breadth, depth, and length therof be sufficiently knowne, that it be not muddie at the bottome, least by much treading the filth rising up from the bottome, thicken the water, and so make it unfitte for that purpose. Also that there be not in the bottome of the River any olde stakes or sharpe stones, which may greatly indanger the Swimmer, but that it be a cleare running water, not a standing corrupted poole, the bottome faire sande, where from the banks may easily be perceaved, whatsoever doth lie in the deepest place of the River.

For the manner of his going into the River, it must not be sweating, for that comming into the cold water it maketh a suddaine change in body, which is very dangerous, but rather by walking easily in some coole shade, or some such other moderate meanes, let him before he enter into the water bring his bodie into a reasonable temperature of heate and cold, and then, not as some which are more bold then wise, rudely leape into the water with their feete downwarde; or when he commeth at the side, fall in upon his right or left side. Or else leaping from the bank, and casting forth his leggs (but yet keeping of them close together) he may light upon his hips, and the hinder parts of his leggs, as you see in this picture:

When he hath perfectly learned to swim to and fro on his bellie, let him learne thus to turne upon his backe, by thrusting out his right hand as far as he can before him, and withall, turne over his left side, and still keepe out his right hand, untill he be turned upon his backe, for that it doth in turning so, support him from sinking, as in this example following:

And when he is thus layd upon his back, he must lie very straight, not bending or bowing with his bodie any way, save onely his legs, which he must easily pull out and in, as when he was on his belly, to put him forwards in the water, as thus:

There is an other kinde of turning when a man is swimming upon his belly, with his head one way, suddainly to turne himselfe, still being upon his belly, & bring about his head and all his body the other way: and for that it is to be done quickly (as oft times you may see the fishes within the water, when in the pleasant heate of Sommer they wantonly friske to and fro) it is commonly called the Koach turne, and that is done thus, if he will turne towards the right hand, hee must suddainely put the water from him with his left hand, and pull that water behinde towards him with his right hand, turning backe his head and his bodie as you see in this next figure:

There is also a turning which is called the bell turne, as when one swimming one his bellie shall suddainely pull in his feete, and in stead of striking with them as is afore sayd, he shall heaving backward with his foreparts, strike forward with his feete, which motion will turne him upon his backe: and because he may at his pleasure turne so upon his backe and belly as hee will, it is called the bell turne, resembling also a bell when it is ringing, as for example:

To swimme upon his side. This kinde of swimming, though it be more laborious, yet is it swifter then any of the rest, for that lying upon one side, striking with your feete as when you swimme on your bellie, but that the pulling in and thrusting out of his hand, which then did onely keepe him up, do now helpe to put him forward: for onely the lower hand supporteth his bodie, and the upper hand roweth, as in this example:

Some more illustrations:

To dive beneath the water:

To swim like a dogge:

To tread in the water:

To pare his toe nails in the water:

To carry anything drie over the water in his hands:

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Court Education School

The Schoolmaster

These snippets come from Roger Ascham (1515-1568), noted Elizabethan educator and tutor to Elizabeth I.  His book The scholemaster or plaine and perfite way of teachyng children, to understand, write, and speake, the Latin tong but specially purposed for the priuate brynging up of youth in gentlemen and noble mens houses, and commodious also for all such, as have forgot the Latin tonge, was published in 1570. The fragments which follow regard the beating of children in schools, and Ascham’s recollections of a conversation with Lady Jane Grey. Both bear witness to an age in which education began to undergo its own renaissance.

When the great plauge was at London, the yeare 1563. the Queenes Maiestie Queene Elizabeth, lay at her Castle of Windsor: Where, upon the 10th day of December, it fortuned, that in Sir William Cicells chamber, her Highnesse Principall Secretarie, there dined together these personages, M. Secretarie him selfe, Sir William Peter, Sir I. Mason, D. Wotton, Sir Richard Sackville Treasurer of the Exchecker, Sir Walter Mildmaye Chauncellor of the Exchecker, M. Haddon Master of Requestes, M. John Astely Master of the Jewell house, M. Bernard Hampton, M. Nicasius, and I. Of which number, the most part were of her Maiesties most honourable privie Counsell, and the rest serving her in verie good place. I was glad then, and do rejoice yet to remember, that my chance was so happie, to be there that day, in the companie of so manie wise & good men together, as hardly than could haue beene picked out againe, out of all England beside.

M. Secretarie hath this accustomed manner, though his head be never so full of most weightie affaires of the Realme, yet, at dinner time he doth seeme to lay them alwaies aside: and findeth ever fitte occasion to talke pleasantlie of other matters, but most gladlie of some matter of learning: wherein, he will curteslie heare the minde of the meanest at his Table.

Not long after our sitting downe, I have strange newes brought me, sayth M. Secretarie, this morning, that diverse Scholers of Eaton, be runne awaie from the Schoole, for feare of beating. Whereupon, M. Secretarie tooke occasion, to wishe, that some more discretion were in many Scholemasters, in using correction, than commonlie there is. Who many times punishe rather the weakeness of nature, than the fault of the Scholer. Whereby, many Scholers, that might else prove well, be driven to hate learning, before they knowe what learning meaneth: and so, are made willing to forsake their booke, and be glad to be put to any other kinde of living.

M. Peter, as one somewhat severe of nature, said plainlie, that the Rodde onelie was the sworde that must keepe the Schoole in obedience, and the Scholer in good order. M. Wotton a man milde of nature, with soft voice, and fewe wordes, inclined to M. Secretaries judgement, and said, in mine opinion, the Scholehouse should be in deede, as it is called by name, the house of playe and pleasure, and not of feare and bondage: and as I do remember, so saith Socrates. And therefore, if a Rodde carrie the feare of a Sworde, it is no marvell, if those that be fearefull of nature, chose rather to forsake the Play, than to stand alwaies within the feare of a Sworde in a fonde mans handling. M. Mason after his manner, was verie merrie with both parties, pleasantlie playing, both with the shrewde touches of many course boyes, and with the small discretion of many lewde Scholemasters. M. Haddon was fullie of M. Peters opinion, and said, that the best Scholemaster of our time, was the greatest beater, and named the Person. Though, quoth I, it was his good fortune, to send from his Schole unto the Universitie, one of the best Scholers in deede of all our time, yet wise men do thinke, that that came so to passe, rather, by the great towardness of the Scholer, than by the great beating of the Master: and whether this be true or no, you your selfe are best witness.

Before I went into Germanie, I came to Brodegate in Leicestershire, to take my leave of that noble Ladie Jane Grey, to whom I was exceeding much beholdinge. Her parentes, the Duke and the Duchess, with all the household, Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, were huntinge in the Parke. I founde her, in her Chamber, readinge Phaedon Platonis in Greeke, and that with as much delighte as some gentleman would read a merrie tale. After salutation, and dutie done, with some other talke, I asked her, why she would lease such pastime in the Parke? Smiling she answered me: all their sporte in the Parke is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato. Alas good folke, they never felt what true pleasure meant.

And howe came you Madame, quoth I, to this deepe knowledge of pleasure, and what did chieflie allure you unto it: seeinge, not many women, but verie fewe men have attained thereunto.

I will tell you, quoth she, and tell you a truth, which perchance ye will marvell at. One of the greatest benefites, that ever God gave me, is, that he sent me so sharpe and severe Parentes, and so gentle a scholemaster. For when I am in presence either of father or mother, whether I speake, keepe silence, sit, stand, or go, eate, drinke, be merrie, or sad, be sawing, playing, dancing, or doing anie thing else, I must do it, as it were, in such weight, measure, and number, even so perfectlie as God made the world, or else I am so sharplie taunted, so cruellie threatened, yea presentlie some times, with pinches, nippes, and bobbes, and other waies, which I will not name, for the honor I beare them, so without measure misordered, that I thinke my selfe in hell, till time come, that I must go to M. Elmer, who teacheth me so gentlie, so pleasantlie, with such faire allurementes to learning, that I thinke all the time nothing, whiles I am with him. And when I am called from him, I fall on weeping, because, what soever I do else, but learning, is full of grief, trouble, feare, and whole misliking unto me.  And thus my booke hath beene so much my pleasure, & bringeth dayly to me more pleasure & more, that in respect of it, all other pleasures, in very deede, be but trifles and troubles unto me.

I remember this talke gladly, both because it is so worthy of memorie, & because also, it was the last talke that ever I had, and the last time, that ever I saw that noble and worthie Ladie.’

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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