Monday, December 17, 2012


Christmas books: 5

My last Christmas book came out as an adjunct to a remarkable exhibition in the British Museum. Shakespeare Staging the World concerns itself not just with Shakespeare's plays but with their context, ranging from contemporary views of Venice to maps of Tudor Warwickshire. Like the exhibition, the accompanying book is a feast...

Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, Shakespeare Staging the World
Published by The British Museum Press

This is the book of the British Museum exhibition of the same name, which puts Shakespeare into his contemporary context by bringing together a host of objects gathered around a couple of handfuls of crucial Shakespearian themes (London, "Country, County and Custom", Kingship and the English nation, Rome, Venice, the Noble Moor, Scotland, the "Matter of Britain", the "Brave new world"). The authors, Jonathan Bate (one of the foremost literary scholars of his generation and the general editor of the excellent RSC edition of Shakespeare) and Dora Thornton (curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum) weave narratives around the themes and exhibits, so that we get the key information about the objects, some account of their historical importance, and an explanation of how their relevance to Shakespeare's life and works.

The book is gripping on several levels. First, we get the chance to look at nearly 200 objects, mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, mostly fascinating in their own right. Second, we discover how they illuminate Shakespeare. The illuminations can be very specific. For example, near the beginning of the book we are shown a document bearing Shakespeare's witness statement in a court case of 1612. The case concerns the Mountjoy family, with whom Shakespeare was a lodger. The Mountjoys were tire makers (makers of clothing or headgear) who had made "tires" for the queen; Shakespeare wrote plays for the royal court. Mrs Mountjoy consulted the astrologer Simon Forman; Forman went to see Shakespeare's plays and wrote about some of them in his diary. Another witness in the case was George Wilkins, who co-wrote Pericles with Shakespeare. The Mountjoys were Huguenots; Shakespeare wrote speeches for Huguenot asylum-seekers in his contribution to the multi-author play Sir Thomas More, a contribution that we know from the only literary manuscript in the poet's own handwriting that has survived – which is another illustration in the book.

Most of the exhibits are contextual. These are not objects that belonged to the poet, but they are the kind of thing he would have owned, or handled, or known about, or they illustrate things that go on his his plays. A strip of tapestry designed to go around the top of a four-poster bed is woven with scenes of country life – people hunting, chatting, canoodling, playing the bagpipes – it could be the Forest of Arden. A calf-s heart stuck with pins looks like the kind of thing the witches in Macbeth might have used. A rapier with a blade made in Toledo recalls Othello's choice of suicide weapon, "a sword of Spain" – Othello has selected a weapon that is sharp and well made but also beautiful and obviously an object of quality; his choice of sword is almost a fashion-statement.

Pictures of wild men who could be Calibans; a schoolboy's caricature of his teacher recalling the schoolmaster in The Merry Wives of Windsor harping on the "focative" case; Henry V's saddle (or, as the book carefully says, "Early fifteenth-century saddle, perhaps associated with the funeral of Henry V in 1422"); boar-shaped badges of followers of Richard III ("the most deadly boar"); a glass enamelled with masquerade figures including a "lean and slippered pantaloon" who could be a relative of the one Jacques speaks of in his "Seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It. These are the kinds of objects we encounter in this book.

In the exhibition there were videos of actors speaking chunks of the plays. The book quotes the plays a lot, and we are never far away from the scenes and characters that inspired this whole exercise in the first place. Perhaps the imagery in the book, and its arguments about their contextual relevance to Shakespeare, work best when several examples illuminate a specific part of the Tudor world. The glass with the pantaloon is marvellous, but when there are multiple images and examples – the varied portraits of people of colour, for example, and those of Jews, the depictions of London (some familiar, some less so), the oaks, stagshorns, watering pots and tapestries from the English countryside, and the images of kingship, I feel I am back in the rich and ambiguous world that Shakespeare staged.


bazza said...

I can think of no better Christmas present than to be steeped in Shakespeare! I might ask Santa for this book; not one for the Kindle I think.
I can think of no better Christmas present than to be steeped in Shakespeare

Philip Wilkinson said...

Absolutely, Bazza: one for the print edition - the pictures are excellent.