- Shakespeare: Staging the World by Jonathon Bate and Dora Thornton
Shakespeare: Staging the World was written and published to accompany the British Museum’s same titled exhibition, which was the museum’s contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival, which in turn, was a centerpiece of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Yet to mistakenly refer to this book simply as a catalog of the show does a disservice to both the outstanding exhibition and this lavishly illustrated and remarkable book. The book, supported by hundreds of full-color illustrations of a wide range of surviving late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artifacts, examines and explores the “diverse cultures of the early modern world as it stood on the threshold of globalization” (9). The book argues that Shakespeare’s plays reflected both the known (the topical, the particular, and the secretive), as well as the unknown (an unknown that, as Bate and Thornton argue, was becoming remarkably less “unknown” during his lifetime). Furthermore, they argue that the artifacts—those artifacts physically present in production and those artifacts unseen, but referenced in the plays (both types on display during this exhibition)—played a significant role in the “making of the modern collective memory” (10). The artifacts help illuminate particular characters, actions, and readings of some of the plays and the receptions of those plays, and how the plays “contributed to his [and our] culture” (10).
This is not a book that disputes or challenges the notion of Shakespeare as, more or less, the singular author of most of the known plays, although the authors do not shy away from discussing his successful and not so successful collaborations with other writers. What the book does do is to present a more complete and complicated biographical sketch of the life of Mr. William Shakespeare. The picture that emerges seems to be a life more ordinary and more extraordinary than previously understood. The authors make special mention of a civil court case in which Shakespeare acted as a witness; this written deposition “is the only surviving document that we can say with absolute certainty provides a record of words actually spoken by William Shakespeare” (13). Repeatedly, as with the previous example, the details of Shakespeare’s life are augmented with artifacts—artifacts that often (re)appear within the plays; the notion of onstage and offstage becomes blurred, if not meaningless, and in such a manner Bate and Thornton contextualize Shakespeare within his London, his society, and the larger world. The authors suggest that this repositioning of the material within the historical and the literary allows the contemporary reader to learn, as happened in Shakespeare’s time, that “the present was understood through reference to the past” (18), an idea that had recently been adopted with the (re)discovery of artifacts from Ancient Rome and Greece.
With writing that is both lucid and vividly descriptive, the authors do an admirable job of imagining and presenting Shakespeare’s London in a manner that highlights good and bad aspects of the city (and its outlying boroughs). They rather [End Page 115] successfully situate the reader in the midst of the hustle of this emerging modern metropolis, all the while challenging preconceived history and introducing a new way of understanding how Shakespeare connected, often in the most pragmatic of ways, aspects of his plays to London, to England, and to the world beyond. One example details the visit in the summer of 1600 of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the Barbary ambassador and his entourage, who came to enter into exploratory talks with Queen Elizabeth about forming a military alliance against Spain. The delegation stayed in London for several months and “formed such a spectacle in London that Shakespeare must have known of their presence and, in all probability, seen them in the flesh” (35). In the chapter entitled “The Noble Moor,” the authors return to this particular visit as they examine Shakespeare’s exploration of “Moorish, Turkish and black African identity” (171). Bate and Thorton’s discussion is much more complex than viewing these...