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Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

Author Carrie Vout speaks at Heffers shop in Cambridge

Cambridge Heffers Classics Festival Warm-upTuesday, October 15th at 18:30

Join Heffers for a fascinating evening with three authors presenting glimpses from their new books with Q&A afterwards.

Caroline Vout presents Sex on Show: Seeing the erotic in Greece and Rome. Caroline Vout examines the abundance of sexual imagery in Greek and Roman culture. Were these images intended to be shocking, humorous, or exciting? Are they about sex or love? Caroline provides fascinating insights into ancient attitudes toward religion, politics, sex, gender, and the body. They also reveal how the ancients saw themselves and their world, and how subsequent centuries have seen them.

Tim Whitmarsh – Beyond the Second Sophistic. Tim offers new readings of some of the best-known and most influential authors of Greek antiquity, including Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato, as well as introducing many lesser-known figures.

Paul Cartledge – The Oath of Plataea. Through an analysis of this oath, Cartledge provides a wealth of insight into ancient Greek culture.

Visit the Heffers events page for further details about the talk and how to book.

Click here to buy Caroline Vout’s Sex on Show on the British Museum’s website now.

Melanesia book launch

Melanesia: Art and encounter

Introducing a new book from the British Museum

Professor Marilyn Strathern will lead a panel of scholars to discuss this exciting new contribution to the ethnography of the Pacific, followed by a reception with the editor and contributors.

6pm, Friday 11 October, in the Stevenson Theatre of the British Museum

The book will be on sale at a discount.

No booking is required, but an advance note of attendance would be appreciated. Please email pbence@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

The artistic traditions of Melanesia are among the most rich and diverse of any region of the world, and this book examines them in an unprecedented depth. As the culmination of a five-year research project into the collections of the British Museum, it draws upon the experience of cultural experts and artists from Melanesia and around the world to interpret an enormous range of artefacts.

The book is edited by Lissant Bolton, Nicholas Thomas, Elizabeth Bonshek, Julie Adams and Ben Burt. A total of 57 chapters cover, with editorial introductions, West Papua, Papua New Guinea (north and south), Soloman Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. In dealing with ‘art and encounter’, the book presents the British Museum’s outstanding Melaneisan collections, illustrated by 300 colour photos, in the context of historical relational relationships between Melanesias and Europeans over the past two hundred years.

British Museum Press

ISBN 978 0 7141 256 1
£75 hardback

Click here to buy.

Beyond El Dorado opens soon; preview at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Beyond El Dorado_front cover Lowres SmlA fascinating and unique British Museum exhibition: Beyond El Dorado will be opening 17 October 2013 and running until 23 March 2014.

For centuries Europeans were dazzled by the legend of El Dorado – literally ‘the golden one’. Many different stories were told of El Dorado – sometimes it was imagined as a lost city of gold, sometimes as a man covered in powdered gold who plunged into the middle of Lake Guatavita (near modern Bogotá). The exhibition uncovers the fascinating truth behind some of these myths. Unlike in Europe, gold was not valued as currency in pre-Hispanic Colombia. Instead it had great symbolic meaning, facilitating all kinds of social and spiritual transformations. It was one way the elite could publicly assert their rank, both in life and in death.

The exhibition features over 200 fascinating objects from Museo del Oro, Bogotá, and around 100 from the British Museum’s collection. They show technologically advanced and sophisticated goldworking techniques, including the use of an alloy composed of gold and copper, and the use of textiles, feathers, stones and ceramics. These beautiful and detailed works display a level of complex craftsmanship that perfectly marries art and skill, and show the differences in techniques and designs across the region.

To get the chance to see it you can book your tickets here. The accompanying catalogue is also available to purchase and is published by the British Museum Press.

Beyond El Dorado, by Elisenda Vila Llonch, is published by the British Museum Press in paperback (£19.99). To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Elisenda will be giving a preview of the exhibition and book in her talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Monday 7 October 2013. Visit the festival’s website to book your tickets.

Elisenda’s book expands on the exhibition and looks at the myths and rituals of El Dorado as well as the uses and importance of gold in the northern Andes.

In fact among the cultures of the northern Andes, gold has been revered above all other materials. Gold was believed to be a product of the Sun, the supreme procreator, and as such had special associations with fertility and power. For the people of Colombia, the value of gold lay in the symbolic and transformative properties associated with its colour, aura and malleability and it was used to fashion some of the most visually dramatic and technically sophisticated works of art found anywhere in the Americas before European contact.

Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome

The ancient Greeks and Romans were not shy about sex. Sex scenes starring anonymous mortals or heroes and gods met their eyes at every turn. Phallic imagery and scenes of seduction graced drinking cups, oil-lamps and walls. In Athens sculptures with erect penises served as boundary stones and signposts. In Pompeii people wore penis pendants and their necks, or hung them from doorways. Two thousand years later, this exhibitionism can appear strange or surprising, even embarrassing.


Sex on Show cover low-res smlSex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome will be published by the British Museum Press on 30 September. Drawing on the British Museum’s extensive collection of classical works, award-winning author Caroline Vout examines the abundance of sexual imagery in Greek and Roman culture and the questions that arise from it: are we right to see this material as ‘sexual’? Are the images about sex or love? Were they intended to be stimulating, moralizing, shocking or humorous? Are our responses to them akin to those of the ancients? The answers to these questions provide fascinating insights into ancient attitudes to art, religion, politics, sex, gender and the body. They reveal how the ancients saw themselves and their world, and how subsequent centuries have seen them.


Covering the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD, and embracing Renaissance and post-Renaissance material, Sex on Show uses detailed visual analysis to ask not what but how, why and to what effect. Beautifully written and lavishly illustrated, this book does not simply address theories of sexual practice or social history; it is a visual history – about what it meant and still means to have sex stare us in the face.


To celebrate the publication of Sex on Show, we’ve included an exclusive extract here.

‘One man’s nakedness is another man’s nudity. Each of these assessments of an image configures its seductiveness or shock value differently. This is why our discussion of sex on show starts with exposure in an attempt to understand which ancient bodies were vulnerable or heroic, and which made viewers feel empathy or desire. Not that the desiring gaze is itself straightforward – if we stare at a statue and are turned on by it, are we in thrall to it or is it in thrall to us? What does the statue know? Is it complicit about being looked at? This last question may sound a curious one to ask of an inanimate object but it is key to how the statue makes us feel. Were the figure of Venus on the wooden casket from Roman Egypt (fig. 37) to meet our gaze head on, she would be as provocative as Manet’s Olympia – closer in kind to the prostitute, or Phryne, on whom Praxiteles’ famous Aphrodite of Knidos was supposed to have been modeled, than to the cult statue itself.

Fig 37

Wooden painted panel showing Venus putting on a necklace in her shrine. Fayum, Egypt, AD 250-300.

Instead it is her coyness that captivates, letting the viewer remain a voyeur. The falling boxer on a cup painted in Athens, by contrast, looks straight at us, painfully aware of his own subjugation . His audacity, and the openness of his body, is made all the more pointed when we see inside the cup (fig. 39) where a single nude athlete turns his back to us and bends towards an altar, exposing his buttocks and obscuring his face.

Fig 39

Interior of the same red-figure drinking cup. Attica, Greece 500 – 490 BC.

Although there are kalos inscriptions (meaning ‘what a beauty!’) on the cup, it is hard to enjoy the physical display as men did the statue of Aphrodite in her shrine at Knidos. We feel too exposed for that. The frontal gaze is a powerful thing, as gorgons’ heads inside other drinking cups show (fig. 40). In these cases, the drinkers’ eagerness to drain his wine and see what joy lies within is met by a leering stare that can turn him to stone.

Fig. 40

Black-figure drinking cup with an image of a gorgon in its interior. Attica, Greece, 500 – 475 BC.

Renaissance moralists were not the first to acknowledge that looking can be dangerous. In antiquity, those who came to Knidos had Greek mythology pumping through their veins, mythology which warned of the dangers of stumbling upon a goddess bathing. The seer Tiresias was blinded as a result of seeing Athena in such a state, and Actaeon turned into a stag by the goddess Artemis and then ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

fig. 41

Heavily restored marble statue of Actaeon being attacked by his hunting dogs. Second century AD.

In light of these stories, it is rather wonderful that in the fourth century BC an Athenian pot painter chose to represent a third divine bather, the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles, in a pose which was soon the preserve of the ‘crouching Aphrodite’ type – an overlap made more obvious by the fact that he distinguishes both Thetis an Aphrodite’s son Eros in white and that Aphrodite herself is seated top left, observing the scene. Our seeing Aphrodite a second time instead of Thetis not only plays to the latter’s ability to assume forms other than her own but enables us to see and not see her simultaneously and so to look, and have the painter look, with impunity. She is not caught off guard without her clothes, she is no even herself, she resembles a living statue. For Praxiteles and those in Knidos, there is no such ‘let out’: the full force of his statue lies not in the desire it stimulates, but in the inescapable fact that this Aphrodite they are witnessing and that all of them are, therefore, at risk. What happens next? The man foolish enough to try to penetrate her is forced to throw himself from a cliff.

This blurring between flesh and marble is at the heart of the Pygmalion myth, which tells how the artist Pygmalion became so enamoured of the ivory girl he had created that he willed it to change into a real woman. It also underpins the story of Pandora, the first ever woman, whom the gods supposedly modelled out of clay to be irresistible to Epimetheus, who took her as his wife, and with her, the jar of trouble she brought as her dowry. And it was not only female figures who asked for animacy. The sculptures of myth’s first artist, Daedalus, ‘seemed to move and to see’ and if ‘not fastened up’, to ‘play truant and run away’. Statues were born imitators –though some were better at it than others: a commemorative statue by Myron in honour of a runner called Ladas was so lifelike that one author commented: ‘soon the bronze will leap to seize the crown and the base will hold it no longer’. Nor were the best paintings barred from competing: Alexander the Great’s court artist Apelles painted the flesh of a boy so that it seemed to pulsate with life. In Rome, images of Augustus and his successors could literally stand in for the emperor; and the emperors’ treatment of images reveals much about their characters. Not content with Parrhasius’ painting of Meleager and Atalanta, the emperor Tiberius so loved the statue of an athlete scraping himself with a strigil, which had been made by another of Alexander’s artists, Lysippus, and was then on display near the Baths of Agrippa in Rome, that he took it to his bedroom. Almost immediately he was forced to return it by a general public who were also in love with it.

The verb used to describe Tiberius’ love for the statue (adamare, ‘to fall in love’) is the same that Cicero uses of Verres’ motivation; it unequivocally stresses that both of them are taking too much visual pleasure in Greek art. In contrast, Augustus’ wife, Livia, is an example of good practice when she saves the life of a man who appears naked before her with the claim that to a chaste woman like herself, looking at such a man was like looking at a statue. Self-controlled viewers should be able to look at an artwork and channel their enjoyment into aesthetic as opposed to sensual pleasure. They should be able to maintain their superiority and the artwork its decency. But good art makes this hard work; as soon as it imitates nature and, more, casts a goddess as a girl, it brings nudity and nakedness worryingly close together. It is not only members of the imperial family whose sexual proclivities are tapped and whose self-restraint is tested. All viewers are tested.’

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum. Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by Caroline Vout is published by the British Museum Press in hardback at £25. To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Shakespeare’s Globe, 400 Years On

400 years ago today, the original Globe Theatre in Southwark famously burned to the ground during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. To mark this anniversary, we’ve included here an extract from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published in 2012 by the British Museum Press.

Shakespeare P 18

I hope to see London once ere I die’. Henry IV Part 2 5.3.45. London (‘The Long View’), Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647. Etching comprising four sheets, overall 47.1 x 158.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“Although London was far smaller than it is today, it had, by the standards of the time, extensive suburbs. The south bank of the river – the district of Southwark – was all suburb. That was where you went for entertainment. In 1599… a brand new theatre called the Globe opened its doors. The first play staged there is likely to have been Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Some of the audience would have arrived by water taxi, others would have walked over the bridge. The tragedy of Caesar’s death was played out within sight of the Tower of London, across the river, that he was supposed (incorrectly) to have erected. The drama of ancient conspiracy and treason would have been given edge by the very modern sight of those heads on spikes witnessed on the way to and from the theatre.

untitled

‘With this wooden O’… Henry V Prologue. 13. Detail of Sheet 2 from Wenceslaus Hollar’s print London , showing Southwark with the second Globe, built in 1614 after the first Globe burned down, mistakenly labeled as the ‘Beere bayting house’. The building labeled the Globe was the Hope, built in 1613 as a dual-purpose venue for animal-baiting and as a theatre. Etching, 46.6 x 39 cm. British Museum, London.

…Like all crowded places, the playhouses were a magnet for petty criminals. Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a celebrity astrologer and sought-after physician. He kept a diary in which he recorded intimate consultations with a wide range of London society, from prostitutes to fine ladies, who came to him with their problems and concerns (he had a tendency to take advantage of the doctor-patient relationship). In 1611 he went to see Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale at the Globe. He drew a moral from the performance in noting how the trickster Autolycus ‘feyned him sicke & to have ben Robbed of all that he had and hoe he cozened the por man of all his money’ and reminded himself to ‘beware of trusting feined beggars or fawning fellouse’.

The success of Shakespeare’s representation of a feigned beggar and pickpocket on stage came in small measure from the presence around the theatres of numerous real-life figures of just such a kind. In popular literature there was a vigorous market in pamphlets describing the tricks and jargon of the petty criminals who duped their victims, known as ‘conies’ or rabbits, in the streets of London. The most valuable sequence for our purposes in Thomas Platter’s diary is his account of theatergoing, including a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe:

“On September 21st (September 11th in the English calendar) after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people;  when the play was over, they danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women”.

…The value of this account goes far beyond the information it gives about such details as entrance prices, starting time, costumes, dance routines at the end of the show, the competition between different venues, and so forth. Platter also reveals how plays helped to shape cultural identity. The ‘play in which they presented diverse nations’ shows how the theatre was an arena in which national stereotypes were forged (or overturned). The centrality of theatre to London life is suggested by the idea that merely to witness how the English ‘play or act’ in their social encounters is to see how much time they have clearly spent at the playhouse: the English go to the theatre, Platter implies, in order to learn how to behave like English men and women”.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above is extracted from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published by the British Museum Press, paperback £25. To read more and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

London Gay Pride 2013

Happy Gay Pride everyone!  For more information, visit http://www.londongaypride.co.uk/.

In the spirit of Gay Pride, we’ve included here a short extract from our new book, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson (British Museum Press, paperback, £9.99).

A Little Gay History front cover - low-resPacific Embraces

“In the early eighteenth century, European explorers recorded sexual practices between males in the eastern Pacific region. European missionaries and colonial officials in the following centuries strongly discouraged such activities.

In many parts of the eastern Pacific or Polynesia, same-sex acts were tolerated only between a gender-crossing male and a socially accepted man. Polynesian languages have terms such as mahu (Tahiti) and fa’a fafine (Samoa) that define men who act and dress as women and who, as in many areas of South-East Asia, represent a third gender between man and woman. However, not all man on man sex involved such individuals: in Hawaii, aikane were young masculine men who had sex with the king. David Samwell (1751 – 98), a Welsh surgeon on Captain Cook’s ship the Discovery, noted in 1779 with some surprise that

It is an office that is esteemed honourable among them & they have frequently asked us on seeing a handsome young fellow if he was not an aikane to some of us.

Treasure Box

Above: This ‘treasure box’ was designed to be stored, not on the ground, but suspended. New Zealand, late eighteenth century. Wood and shell, H. 9.4 cm; L. 43 cm; D. 9.8 cm.

Below: Detail.

Treasure box close-up

This box from eighteenth-century New Zealand is made of wood and decorated with shell. It is a so-called ‘treasure box’ that would contain the powerful personal ornaments of a high-ranking Maori person, such as a chief. Every surface (including the underneath) of this prestigious box is covered with designs which show fourteen highly stylized figures, intertwined and linked in various types of sexual union, several showing an embrace between two males.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

New this week is the first-ever British Museum audio recording on the subject of A Little Gay History, featuring British Museum curators, Simon Russell Beale and Maggi Hambling discussing a number of objects in the British Museum collection. A free guide to objects from A Little Gay History on display is also available from the British Museum website.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World is available from all good bookshops and from the British Museum shop online.

The British Museum Press in Autumn 2013

Autumn 2013 Catalogue Cover

Our Autumn 2013 catalogue is now available!

Accompanying two major exhibitions in Autumn, we will be publishing Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art.  In August we will publish Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by the award-winning author Carrie Vout, bringing new insights to Greek and Roman culture and erotic imagery, past and present. In October, we will publish 5000 Years of Tiles, showcasing the incredible range of tile arts and production techniques, and revealing a fascinating history of design, colour and decoration.

Beyond El Dorado cover - low-resShunga cover 2-5-13 low-resSex on Show cover low-resThe Greek Vase cover low-res5000 Years of Tiles cover - low-resMasterpieces - Early Medieval Art cover low-resRoman Empire cover -  low-resCurious Beasts front cover low-resHaiku Love cover - low-resPersian Love Poetry cover low-resThe Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia low-res

These are just a few highlights from our Autumn 2013 list. To view the full catalogue, visit the British Museum Press website.

Happy reading this Autumn!

Kitaj Prints

Kitaj Prints

Kitaj Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné will be published on Monday by the British Museum Press.

This beautifully illustrated new book explores the range of graphic works of R.B. Kitaj, one of the most thought-provoking and controversial artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

American-born artist R.B. Kitaj’s (1932–2007) distinctive, highly personal and often challenging works drew on many influences ranging from literature to politics and film. The British Museum holds a near complete set of the artist’s proofs, the best representation of the artist’s graphic works in the UK.

Kitaj worked in England for almost forty years – until 1994 when his ill-fated retrospective exhibition at the Tate was savaged by the critics. Hurt by the hostile reception of his works in his adopted homeland and grieving for the sudden death of his young wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, Kitaj left England for good, returning to America, declaring, ‘London is dead to me now’. It was in London that he developed his early style and influenced many of his close circle of friends, including David Hockney, who he met at the RCA, and Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. This led him to coin the term ‘School of London’, later associated with this group of purely figurative artists.

This exciting and beautifully produced book amounts to the definitive collection of the artist’s graphic works, and is the first to examine in detail Kitaj’s prints for almost twenty years, featuring 300 pieces.

A forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum from 30 May to 1 September 2013, Recent Acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj will showcase many of Kitaj’s striking graphic works, which are featured in the catalogue.

Ahead of publication, author Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of prints and drawings, chooses her favourite pieces.

Boys and Girls

Boys and Girls! (detail), 1964. Colour screenprint.

In Kitaj’s 1965 New York exhibition catalogue he placed this print with the Mahler group and stated that it was associated with ‘the 2nd movement of the 2nd symphony. At the bottom right is Werner Krauss playing ht lead in the anti-Semitic movie Jud-Suess. The central photo was taken from a post-war German nudist mag’.

La Luca

La Luca del Pueblo Español por su Libertad, 1969 – 70. From the series, In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969-70. Colour screenprint, photoscreenprint. 770 x 575 mm.

A large reproduction of the cover of La Luca del Pueblo Español por su Libertad, compiled by A. Ramos Oliveira (The Press Department of the Spanish Embassy, London 1937). First published 1937.

The Red Dancer of Moscow

The Red Dancer of Moscow, 1975. Colour screenprint, photoscreenprint, 1013 x 750 mm.

Here Kitaj reuses the figure of the woman in the print Cutie, 1974 (cat. 180) along with the head of the sailor from the print Cap’n A.B. Dick, 1975 (cat. 201).

Self-portrait (after Mattteo)

Self-portrait (After Matteo), (detail), 1983. Soft-ground etching.

This portrait appears to be based on a figure from Massacre of the Innocents, 1482, a painting by Matteo di Giovanni (c. 1452 – 95; Sant’ Agostino, Siena). The man directly beneath Herod’s right hand wears a black cap and stares out of the painting with a direct gaze, which Kitaj has adopted for his self-portrait. This is the reverse image of the charcoal drawing on green paper, Self-portrait (After Matteo), 1982 (estate of the artist).

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum, extracted from the book.

Kitaj Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné by Jennifer Ramkalawon is published by the British Museum Press, and is available in hardback at £40. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

A Roman Feast from The Classical Cookbook

To complement the current exhibition at the British Museum, the Great Court Restaurant has created a set menu designed to complete your day out. Inspired by the Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition we collaborated with Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, the authors of The Classical Cookbook to create a set menu composed of classic Roman dishes.

82035_Classical_jkt.indd

Friday 17 May 2013 from 6.30– 8.30pm

Great Court Restaurant, British Museum

Join us for a three-course meal inspired by Roman cuisine from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.

With its subtle mix of sweet and sour flavours, its fragrant herbs and exotic spices, pungent fish sauce and cheesecakes running with honey, the cuisine of the ancient Mediterranean is sure to whet the appetite of every modern gourmet. Enjoy authentic recipes, translated and adapted for modern dining. The authors will give a short introduction to the dishes, painting a vibrant picture of living, wining and dining in the ancient world.

The Classical Cookbook
by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger

“History to devour – a scrumptious book”
Lindsey Davis

“Written by a food historian who happens to be a classics scholar, with an archaeologist who happens to be a chef, The Classical Cookbook is a mouth-watering introduction to the food from Ancient Greece and Rome… It gives fascinating information about the two ancient societies and their eating habits.
The Good Book Guide

£35 pp, including glass of Prosecco on arrival.

The event is for bookings only. Reservations can be made via email at bmrestaurant@benugo.com or telephone 02073238990.
(Credit card details will be requested in order to secure reservations.)

Happy Birthday to Shakespeare!

Today would have been William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday.  We’ve included here an excerpt from our 2012 bestseller Shakespeare: staging the world, shedding light on Shakespeare’s world  in his first year of life.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“William Shakespeare was born in 1564, on or about 23 April, St George’s Day. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midland county of Warwickshire, on 26 April. His father was John Shakespeare (c. 1531 – 1601), a glove-maker. His mother, Mary Shakespeare (c. 1537 – 1608) was born Mary Arden, daughter of a yeoman farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote.

Stratford was a crossroads between very different worlds. The ancient forest of Arden lay to the north, while there was rich farming land to the south. Within a hard day’s walk was the university city of Oxford. To the east, and closer, were Kenilworth, home of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532 – 1588), and Warwick, where stood (in considerable disrepair) the castle of the Earls of Warwick. Just beyond that lay Coventry, the fourth largest city in the land. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, the old biblical plays from medieval times – Creation and Flood, Crucifixion and Judgement – where still performed there annually on pageant carts stationed around town. The country and the city, the old rural ways and the new learning, the traditions of play-acting and the powerful presence of the aristocracy: some of the key resources for the creation of Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds were present in his very childhood environment.

Playing cards with maps of English and Welsh counties. Stratford is marked with an S on the map of Warwickshire. Designed by William Bowes and engraved by Augustine Ryther in 1590, this is the earliest known set of cards with English county maps. Hand-coloured engravings, 9.5 x 5.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Playing cards with maps of English and Welsh counties. Stratford is marked with an S on the map of Warwickshire. Designed by William Bowes and engraved by Augustine Ryther in 1590, this is the earliest known set of cards with English county maps. Hand-coloured engravings, 9.5 x 5.7 cm. British Museum, London.

For centuries the administration of government and of the law in England had depended on the king or queen, or their representatives, notably the judges, travelling the country on ‘circuits’. Shakespeare was born on the margin between the Midland circuit, which consisted of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, and the Oxford circuit, which covered Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Among the many hundreds of stage plays that arrive from his lifetime, the only ones that include scenes located in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire are his. His territory, then, was the Midlands. In the national imagination, ‘Shakespeare country’ would eventually become synonymous with ‘Middle England’.

In the year that he was born it became possible to visualize the shape and disposition of the counties or shire for the first time. Laurence Nowell’s ‘A general description of England and Ireland’ was made for Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (1521 – 158). Stratford-upon-Avon is marked near its centre. Six years into the reign of Elizabeth I, it shows a view of Englishness and nationhood as Shakespeare’s generation experienced it.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Shakespeare: staging the world, written by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, is available for £25 in paperback and £30 in hardback from the British Museum online shop.