Shakespeare: Staging the World - bringing an exhibition catalogue to life

In our latest blogpost, we look at the research, collaboration and sheer hard work that goes into bringing an exhibition catalogue to life.

The British Museum's book, Shakespeare: Staging the World is one of our all time favourite exhibition catalogues. This splendid book, which accompanied a 2012 exhibition, considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare and argues that the things that he, his players and his audience saw 'mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision'.

'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'

Shakespeare: Staging the World

Below the book's co-author Dora Thornton writes about the year-long process of bringing the book to life.

'Although it is intended to underpin the British Museum exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, the book is not an exhibition catalogue, but the product of a substantial body of research in its own right. Book and exhibition mirror one another; in both we feel our way between texts and objects. 

As this is a British Museum exhibition, we wanted to think with objects, using them to take us very directly to the issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences. Some of these objects were known to me already; others had to be found, hunted down, researched and interrogated with new questions in mind. I used a network of scholars linking New York to Tokyo, Copenhagen to Vicenza, Dublin to Gdansk, as well as relying on museum colleagues at the British Museum and other national museums.

The result is a cultural anthropology of sorts for some of Shakespeare’s main characters. Othello, for example, is a composite through whom Shakespeare explores Moorish, Turkish and black African identity. “I have another weapon in this chamber/ It is a sword of Spain, the ice-brook’s temper.” So he says shortly before his suicide. Scholars have noted that Spain was famous for its fine swords – notably Toledo blades – and have puzzled over the tempering process, even suggesting that “ice- brook” might be a misprint for “Innsbruck”, also known for fine metal.

One of the challenges Jonathan set me was to find “a sword of Spain”. The hunt for a genuine, marked rapier of the right date took me first to Curator of Arms and Armour, Tobias Capwell, at the Wallace Collection, then to the Royal Armoury in Madrid and the Scott collection in Glasgow Museums, until Angus Patterson at the Victoria & Albert Museum found me the perfect example, a blade signed by a known Toledo swordsmith, Francesco Ruiz. It is a fine sword, suitable for a noble moor of royal ancestry to choose as his suicide weapon.

We explore it in the book in relation to a powerful portrait of Abd-el Ouahed ben Massaoud, Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth I in 1600, to whom Shakespeare probably played in London. It is hard not to imagine that this turbaned military leader with his dignified presence did not linger on in Shakespeare’s imagination when he wrote Othello a few years later. Add to these objects rare sculptures of black African heads in silver-gilt and marble of around 1600, from collections in Munich and Dresden, which reveal a developing aesthetic of blackness and a fascination in the patterning of black against white which parallels the imagery of Shakespeare’s Othello. We also throw into the mix Jan Jansz. Mostaert’s unique portrait from the Rijksmuseum of a Christian sub-Saharan African, dressed as a contemporary courtier, which perhaps hints at the beginning of a European black identity. The objects are enigmatic and in that, too, they express the kind of questioning of religious and racial identity which is such a feature of Shakespeare’s Venetian plays. This kind of layering of experience in the book was part of an attempt to create a new dialogue between objects and text, taking things from Shakespeare’s real world and relating them to the world of his imagination.

Instead of an exhibition catalogue, which we thought might only appeal to a few specialists, we decided to thread the incredibly varied objects into a continuous narrative. Having agreed the chapters and their scope, we carved them up between us for first drafts, then swapped chapters and wrote into each other’s text. Before any writing, I would present images of the objects I had selected for a chapter to Jonathan, suggesting the resonances and intellectual context for each object; how it might relate to a particular issue or Shakespeare quotation, and grouping them so as to shape the narrative. We would then discuss and agree this.

The whole book comes to around 80, 000 words in total, written within a year. We had the benefit of a team of highly distinguished readers who read our chapter drafts with speed and authority, and made many valuable suggestions for improvement: Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton University, Professor Kate Lowe of Queen Mary College, University of London, and Professor William Sherman of the University of York. We are extremely grateful to them, and to the specialist curators who also commented on particular sections. Despite the fact that time was always hard to find and we both had many other things to do, Jonathan and I enjoyed the writing enormously, and found it a creative and truly collaborative book to write.'


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