Kalliope Muse speaks to me

Emigrée from GR


Shakespeare: Staging the World - Jonathan Bate, Dora Thornton This book is about things.But these are not just any things. These are things that talk. By grouping themselves like words they form chapters that narrate us a story. They could associate themselves differently and compose different accounts, but this time they disclose to us the world of William Shakespeare. This heterogeneous selection has been bound by the circular walls of the old Reading Room in the Great Court of the British Museum into a coherent representation. The current chamber will discharge these objects and they will all depart their own ways, but a book will remain: the catalogue I am reviewing.The story has a time and a place set. This is London four hundred years ago, circa 1612, the year when our Universe became more populated since Galileo detected what we now call Neptune. It was also the year in which Cervantes’s entered the British minds, for his Don Quijote de la Mancha was first translated into English. It was also, although this fact is not explicitly mentioned in this account, a sad year for the British Monarchy and for the British population. Henry, the Prince of Wales, and very much loved eldest son of the new King James passed away rather suddenly after a fatally fast bout of typhoid fever. More people went to his funeral than had gone to Elizabeth’s about ten yeas earlier. He represented the handsome future of a prosperous country at peace with itself and with others.This was also the year in which WS could say he had made it. And he proved so by buying himself a nice big house back in Stratford and by decreasing his work schedule. It is also in this year when WS signed the only document that can be consensually attributed to him. He autographed a deposition when he was summoned as a witness in an earlier dispute. This is the only such authentic and direct document that has survived.Lacking any additional direct statements, this variegated array of things however recite a persuasive testimony. Originating all of them from around that period, we can listen to them as they sing in a chorus the backdrop to WS’s plays. They have chosen to approach their subject, Shakespeare and his work, starting at the peak of his career.Posterity has been puzzled by the wide range of WS’s knowledge. May be these objects can illustrate us in this respect. And so they do. For example, we have tapestries with captivating scenes of hunting and falconry. Or more rough objects such as an earthenware watering pot that must have come in handy to water the models of the beautiful botanical prints also collected here. All of these items reveal to us that WS knew what life in the country entailed and that he knew his flowers. The flowers in his plays could fill several gardens. And flowers also are embroidered in the costume for a pregnant woman announcing to us that Anne Hathaway was carrying child when WS married her. More flowers, together with white harts, are planted in the beautiful Wilton Diptych establishing the provenance of King Richard II and his Queen Anne of Bohemia. It was this King who opened the History tetralogy, the Henriad, in which WS demonstrates that, if he knew his country, he also knew its History.For history at the time provided plenty of action. And the present was the one of a violent age. Several swords belonging to the array of Henrys have also joined this grouping, but the one that stands out is the magnificent steel blade from Toledo, with the Ruiz signature, and its silver hint from France. All of these remind us that it was an epoch in which fates and destinies could be turned upside down any minute. The Portrait of the Earl of Essex is there to proclaim what we may forget.And as history has to be able to measure time, in this gathering we have John Dee’s frontispiece of a calendar reform which came close to the one established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 when he adjusted the Julian calendar. For at least on this one issue England agreed with the Papacy. When reckoning time, the older system had to be amended to account for the leap years, even if Julius Caesar, the long admired hero who was accredited with the founding of the Tower of London, had to be corrected. And to remind us of this hero and of WS’s enactment of his assassination, a gold coin in which the engraved name of Brutus (was he really the ancestor of the Brits?), and the ominous phrase Beware of the Ides of March, has turned up in this artifact gathering.For if WS was looking into the History of England and of the Roman Republic, he was also looking at contemporary times and beyond the seas to farther horizons. In the distant lands Venice stood out as the port to the Orient, but also as the land of the gilded Guilds and of other appreciations. The “Friendship books”, with their illustrations of the legendary Venetian women, famous for their beauty, their generous gratifications and light morals, were highly esteemed. Those prickled by naughty curiosity could lift the paper flaps in the skirts of the pictured ladies and reveal their coy underwear and stunning platform shoes. And in case we do not believe how shockingly high these fashionable shoes, or “chopines”, were an actual pair have walked their way into the Bloomsbury Reading Room.But not all Venetian ladies were of the same nature and we should keep wary of holding prejudices. A beautiful handkerchief with embroidered red around its edges reminds us of the power this piece of cloth had when it was tragically misunderstood. Poor Desdemona.Venice could shine at the center stage because it was a trading center. We know that also now the abundance of mercantile settlements creates opportunities for scams. A kit composed of a box, a pair of scales and a sample of brass coins from all trading countries could be very handy if one wanted to avoid being swindled. Who wants to find himself in a situation in which one is prompted to exclaim: “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” These scales can also warn us that apart from coins they can also weigh more ominous materials, may be even a pound of flesh.Around 1612 James wanted a Britain already formed out of England and Scotland. There is huge map of the Island in which Thomas Lyte presents the two lineages drawn on the side but in which one stands out. Can we then forget the Tudors and think of the doomed but blessed Banquo and his descendants? For better times seemed to go ahead. The religious rift from the previous dynasty could be expected to disappear altogether. In 1604 Britain and Spain came to a Peace agreement on their conference held at Somerset House. A beautiful group portrait, serving as witness document, makes its presence and oversees that these objects gather in peace.This new dynasty seemed to favor WS better, for the troupe in which he worked, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became in 1603 the better patronized The King’s Men. With the exclusive rights awarded to this troupe, and therefore consider all his future production as sold, WS could start dreaming of the spacious house alluded to earlier. And if these artifacts have combined to construct their story, we postmodernists know that the framing is also part of the message. So, whether bound in the book format to be held in one’s hands, or encased by the round walls of the Library, their enclosure shapes our perception of them. The book reproduces images in similar size of objects of opposite measurements. There is a pad made out of bone which was used in schools to teach the alphabet: Its role here is to remind us that if Shakespeare did not go to University, he did have a very well grounded schooling. He was taught plenty of rhetoric and grammar preparing him for his dedicated reading of Virgil and Ovid. As photographed, it makes one think it has the size of a Pad but in the Museum we see it is more like a Nano. Conversely, the printed illustration of the Narwhal tusk impresses as little as a crochet needle, but is unavoidably provoking when standing in a room, sheathed in its original sixteenth century case with its close to three meters length, daring the viewer to fathom in her mind the size of the animal that makes use of such an outgrowth. This magnificent tusk from a believed mythical unicorn then, is one of the signs that the world shone even beyond Venice and its Mediterranean trade with the Far East. Even if Tempests were required to break the seas and take Shakespeare’s plays to these Brave New Worlds.I am grateful for the way these objects have gathered in the Reading Room where we can admire them. Some are already used to veneration, for others it must have felt like a newer and nice attention. They can go back to their usual lodgings satisfied that they have succeeded in telling us of their lives and in reviving their times when they coexisted with William Shakespeare. Together with his plays they can help us bridge the gap of four hundred years. No longer in the Bloomsbury Reading Room, they are now sitting also inside a book in an easily accessible bookshelf. I am glad.

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