Books Pirates! What’s often forgotten about Hamlet is that amongst the psychological introspection and political intrigue, the prince’s mortality is delayed by the left of field plot device of joining a band of pirates. But what’s all the more remarkable that for all the indignation contemporary Horatio actors include in their performance when reading this ludicrous tale, it’s not there in the text. That's because for Shakespeare and so presumably his audience it was a fairly normal occurrence. In that period there was a spate of incidents in which bored or bankrupt nobles “turned Turk” and joined a Mediterranean pirate ship. We might even wonder if, since some of the most notorious cases happened over a decade after Hamlet was premiered, the play actually promoted piracy as a valid lifestyle choice.
Opening in July, the British Museum’s summer exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world (which is their contribution to Cultural Olympiad) seeks to illuminate objects from the collection like the robes of a Mediterranean pirate through the prism of his plays, his life and his world. As with any cultural achievement, Shakespeare's work will have been understood by a specific collective memory and while most of us non-academics are able to gain a sense of the words and stories, even if we’re particularly familiar some of the plays there will still be certain specific references beyond our understanding. By presenting the visitor with the things which would have been familiar to the people of the period, the British Museum hopes we'll a greater understanding of the more curious aspects of the texts.
In this accompanying catalogue exhibition curator Dora Thornton and her Shakespearean consultant Jonathan Bate provide even greater context for the objects either because they’re specifically mentioned in the text, are directly related to Shakespeare biography in some way or as is most often the case are thematically connected to the plays. To extent this is a natural progression from the chapter in Bate’s Soul of the Age, which forensically reconstructed Shakespeare’s library based on the sources he must have read. This is a selection of objects that would or at least could have been equally inspirational, even indirectly. Some selections might initially seem tenuous but keep with it and connections fire off in all directions.
The book is packed with explanations as interesting as Hamlet’s brief naval dalliance. When Othello mentions the kind of Spanish rapier he's utilising as his means of his suicide, Shakespeare isn’t simply providing colour, he’s still telling us something about the kind of man the moor is, as interested in fashion as the ability to defend oneself. When he says that's constructed from ‘ice-brook’s templar’ he’s indicating that a cheap dagger simply isn’t good enough to bring him down (and even in texts when it's read as “Insbrook” also a source of good quality metal). On the opposite page is a more traditional Turkish sword with its familiar banana shape, which is fine and with a simple hilt and broad, bland blade, still deadly but without the panache or sleek, smooth shape of Othello’s death bringer.
Unlike Soul of the Age, the catalogue lacks a single argument as such, preferring instead to choose single topics (witchcraft) or a geographical locations (Venice or The Tempest’s unnamed island) and provide case study which oscillates between general and specific, submerging the reader in the mountain of facts and anecdotes perhaps in an attempt to mimic the experience of travelling through the exhibition. Ours eyes shift curiously from a bear skull to Horary quadrant the woollen cap which was compulsory for people over the age of six on Sundays and holidays in the 1570s. The effect is bewildering and requires some effort on the part of the reader to reorientate themselves as the authors shift us back and forth through centuries at the turn of the page, from Richards II to III in an instant.
But it’s always rewarding. The book is strongest when considering those Histories in the context of what would have been for him the contemporary monarchy. A portrait of Richard II by an unknown artist is shown to be the reason for Elizabeth I’s oft repeated quote “I am Richard know yet not that?” rather than an “illegal” performance of the play as is commonly thought having been found “fastened to the backside of a door of a base room” in the Palace of Westminster and put in a more prominent position on the Queen’s orders. Its structure, the monarch bolt upright in his throne, orb and sceptre in hand, also influenced the coronation portrait of Elizabeth also included (and perhaps this shot of Ben Wishaw as Richard II in the new BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s play).
There’s certainly an argument to be made for a more structured approach and that in some respects the text is justifying the inclusion in the exhibition of some gorgeous objects not often given the opportunity for exhibition that only have a tangential connection to Shakespeare. But in other senses it doesn’t matter given how memorable they are. Each page is filled with surprising objects and although some, like the Murano jug reputedly blown by writer Thomas Coryat on his grand tour aren’t done justice in photography, there’s still some excitement in seeing a painting of some anonymous noble and then an adjacent photo of the very tunic he’s wearing still in pristine condition. Those of you able to see the actual exhibition when it opens will be very lucky indeed.
Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton is published by the British Museum. 2012. £25 in paperback, ISBN 9780714128245. £40 in hardback, ISBN: 9780714128283. Review copy supplied.