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 Shakespeare: Staging 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:
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:
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:
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).
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?
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.