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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?

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

St Paul’s Cross

The outdoor pulpit known as St Paul’s Cross, painted by John Gipkyn (fl 1594–1629) in 1616. 

Today I discovered this lovely painting of St Paul’s Cross, a site of much historical importance.

Public sermons and announcements were delivered to Londoners from St Paul’s Cross, the first in 1236, when a member of the king’s counsel announced Henry III’s wish to govern London well and punish those who interfered with its citizens. In 1422, Richard Walker, a chaplain of Worcester, appeared at the Cross to to plead guilty to charges of sorcery. Sermons which helped establish the English Reformation were delivered from here, and several riots began on this spot. Londoners were told of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in a sermon delivered at St Paul’s Cross on November 10th by William Barlow. In 1643 the Cross was destroyed by the Puritans during the first English Civil War, and it was rebuilt, minus the pulpit, in 1910.

St Paul’s Cross today
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Crime Gunpowder Plot

To Blowe Up The Parliament House

Given today is 5th November, I thought it might be nice to have a few Gunpowder Plot snippets.  For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, in 1605 an attempt was made by a group of radical Catholics to murder the king, his ministers, and all government officials, by placing barrels of gunpowder beneath Westminster.  The plot was thwarted at the last minute, and ever since, on the 5th November bonfires are lit, and effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned, to celebrate the country’s deliverance from what would have been catastrophic devastation.

The first snippet comes from an account of an experiment conducted in 2003, to measure the potential effect of the original planned explosion beneath Parliament:

According to official sources, the number of barrels of gunpowder found in the vault when it was eventually searched by the authorities was thirty-six. In 2003, the Institute of Physics in London asked the University of Aberystwyth’s Centre for Explosion Studies to estimate the likely effect of detonating thirty-six barrels of gunpowder under the old House of Lords. The team estimated that thirty-six barrels probably equated to around 5,000lbs of gunpowder, and constructing a worst-case scenario, they calculated that an explosion of this nature would have ‘caused structural damage within a radius of 500 yards (a yard equates to 0.9 of a metre, or roughly three feet). All buildings within forty yards would have been destroyed, roofs and walls within a 100 yard radius would have collapsed, and even at 900 yards some windows would have been broken. The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey and the surrounding streets would have obliterated.

The following snippets are from the confession of Thomas Winter, a principal Plotter. His confession was extracted in the Tower after his capture:

Mr Catesby [ringleader of the Plot] ‘brake with me that he had bethought him of a way at one instant to deliver us from all our Bonds, and without any forraine helpe to replant again the Catholicke Religion, and withal, told me in a word it was to blowe up the Parliament house with Gunpowder, for, said he, in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.

The beginning of Easter Terme up came Thomas Percy. The first word he spake was Shall we always, Gentleman, talke, and never do anything? M Catesby took him aside and had speach about somewhat to be done, so as first we might all take an oath of secrecy, which we resolved within two or three daies to do.

Following this exchange, the Plotters met at the Duck and Drake Inn, near the Strand, on 20th May 1604:

We met behind St Clements, M Catesby, M Percy, M Wright, M Guy Fawkes, and myselfe; and having upon a Primer given each other the oath of secrecy, in a chamber where no other bodie was, we went after into the next roome and heard Masse, and received the blessed Sacrament upon the same.

On 5th November 1605, in the morning:

I went downe towardes the Parliament house and in the middle of Kings streete, found the Garde standing that would not let me passe. And as I returned I heard one say, There is a Treason discovered, in which the King and the Lords should have been blowen up. So then I was fully satisfied that all was knowen, and went to the Stable where my Gelding stood, and rode into the Countrey.

The subsequent last stand in the country, when many of the Plotters were trapped in a house, surrounded by the King’s men:
 About eleven of the clock came the companie to best the house, and as I walked into the court, I was shot into the shoulder, which lost me the use of mine arme: the next was shot the elder Wright, stricken dead, after him the younger M Wright, and fourthly Ambrose Rookwood, Then said M Catesby to me, Stand by me Tom and we will die together. Sir, quoth I, I have lost the use of my right arme and I fear that will cause me to be taken. So as we stoode close together, M Catesby, M Percy and myself, they two were shot (as farre as I could guesse with one Bullet), and then the companie entered upon me, hurt me in the  Belly with a Pike, and gave me other wounds until one came behind and caught hold of both mine armes.’

After the siege, the surviving Plotters were rounded up and taken to London, where they underwent a spectacular trial.  All of them, including Guy Fawkes, were executed in January 1606.  For a description of their execution see my October post Beware the Executioner.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Crime Gunpowder Plot

Beware the executioner

Today’s snippet is a description of the execution method favoured for traitors in Jacobean England. Sir Edward Coke, passing final judgement against the Gunpowder Plotters at their trial in 1606, omninously describes their impending death. This fate was subsequently met by eight of the plotters, including Guy Fawkes.

He shall have his judgement to be drawen to the place of Execution from his prison, as being not worthie anymore to tread upon the face of the earth, whereof he was made. Also for that he hath beene retrograde to nature, therefore is hee drawen backwards at a horse taile… hee must be drawen with his head declining downeward, and lying so neere the ground as may be, being thought unfit to take benefit of the common ayre: For which cause also, he shalbe strangled, being hanged up by the necke between heaven and earth, as deemed unworthy of both, or either: As likewise, that the eyes of men may behold, and their hearts contemne him. Then hee is to be cut downe alive, and to have his privie parts cut off and burnt before his face, as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowles and inlayed parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible Treason. After to have his head cut off which had imagined the mischief. And lastly, his body to be quartered and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place, to the view and detestation of men, and to become a pray for the fowles of the aire.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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