Perhaps sensing that some visitors to their Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition would rather have a more visual keepsake rather than a larger academic study, the British Museum have also published a much smaller, more focused distillation of the exhibition’s themes. Also authored by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton with additional work by Becky Allen the exhibition’s project co-ordinator, Shakespeare’s Britain concentrates on high quality images of the objects and shorter, punchier explanations for their relevance to Shakespeare’s story.
One of the consequences of the distillation is that focuses on the more distasteful elements of the exhibition, the engravings depicting executions, reliquaries containing disembodied eyes and torture devices for witches not to mention once of the lanterns reputedly used in the Gunpowder plot. We’re also reminded of how limited the medieval view of the world could be, with the native peoples from other parts of the world treated as curiosities, something Shakespeare himself referenced in The Tempest when Trinculo suggests he could display Caliban in London for profit.
Of the two, assuming you have the money, I’d still recommend the much larger catalogue which collects almost all the objects in the exhibition plus a few more and whose textual real estate is something which can be dipped in and out of in conjunction with a more general study of the plays. But Shakespeare’s Britain would probably the perfect gift for a curious teenager (assuming they still exist) who’s already somewhat aware of his biography but aren’t quite ready for a full blown academic study.
Shakespeare's Britain by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, with Rebecca Allen is published by the British Museum. 2012. RRP: £9.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780714128269. Review copy supplied.