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Shakespeare: staging the world at Waterstones Piccadilly

Shakespeare: staging the world The British Museum Press and Waterstones Piccadilly invite you to celebrate Shakespeare: staging the world, a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the eyes of Shakespeare’s plays. British Museum curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton and celebrated Shakespearean historian Jonathan Bate will be at Waterstones to talk about this exciting and critically acclaimed exhibition and to sign copies of their new book.

Thursday, 20th September, 6.30PM at Waterstones Piccadilly

Tickets are £6 and include a glass of wine or soft drink, and are available in store, via (0)20 78512400 or events@piccadilly.waterstones.co.uk. For further information about the event,  check out the Waterstones website here.

We hope to see you there!

Shakespeare: staging the world – An Interview with Curator Dora Thornton

The British Museum is currently presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.  The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad. The book, Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton complements the exhibition and is published by the British Museum Press.

We spoke to author and British Museum curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton about the project, the London 2012 Festival and the world in Shakespeare’s time.

Dora Thornton

Dora Thornton

Shakespeare has been studied for centuries by hundreds of scholars from around the world. What is new about this project?

We reveal a very different Shakespearean landscape when we use objects to illuminate dramatic texts and texts to illuminate objects. We bring together a selection of ordinary and extraordinary things from the early modern world and examine them through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays, creating a dialogue between his imaginary worlds and the lived experience of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This is very much a British Museum approach, in that we use objects to take us directly to the issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his audiences; we examine world cultures in his day but as they were imagined or encountered from London; and we work across the range of the British Museum collection and way beyond it.

This summer, the world has focused on London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games: how important do you think Shakespeare is to the capital and to Britain itself ?

He is still very significant to us as a writer whose name is synonymous with theatre, with poetry and with Britain’s contribution to world culture. Through his plays, which explored human experience in the new arena of the London playhouse for a wide and diverse audience, Shakespeare gave us a vocabulary and a vision of what it meant to be English, then British, and finally a citizen of the world. The exhibition and the book, Shakespeare: staging the world is the British Museum’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, a series of events to showcase British creativity and culture. As Britain moved onto the international stage in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the national poet, proving the universality of his appeal and his friend Ben Jonson’s claim that “He was not of an age, but for all time!” The World Shakespeare Festival, of which contribution is just a part, will demonstrate how his plays continue to live, and give life, four centuries on, across the great theatre of the world.

What would the city have been like for a foreign visitor in Shakespeare’s time?

We explore ways in which the world came to London in his day; the traffic of people passing through the city as well as in the plays; the way in which Shakespeare appears to be lip-reading an increasingly global conversation, as John Hale once put it. We look at how cultures meet and mingle within some of the objects discussed in our book. The visitor’s experience is something we discuss in the opening chapter of our book—particularly in relation to the importance of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey as documenting English history and kingship, and what that meant in making early modern memory. The tombs were very much on the tourist trail, which was becoming established for London around 1600 as it had long been for more famous trading cities like Venice. Some of the comments made by foreign visitors are still telling about London and Londoners today—for example, Thomas Platter says that “London is said not to be in England, but rather England to be in London” and notes that the English are armchair travellers who “prefer to learn foreign matters and take their pleasures at home”.

The range of objects in Shakespeare: staging the world is astonishing – is there one which, for you, sums up the world that Shakespeare was living and writing in?

As curator of the exhibition who has found all the objects, and thought long and hard about their status and significance, I find it difficult to choose just one: it’s the inter-relationships between the objects and Shakespeare’s words, and the groupings, which matter more in layering experience. But I am particularly fond of the way in which we relate a drawing after John White of Kalicho, an Inuk brought to England by Frobisher in 1577, with a doit coin, which take us very directly to Trinculo’s comment: “when they [the English] will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian”. The doit was the coinage of cheap celebrity entertainment. Juxtaposing a real doit coin with the image of Kalicho does much more than illustrate Trinculo’s words: it takes us to the issue of “this new prey”; human beings brought back as trophies from the New World. What were the British to make of this “brave new world” which was opening up all around them?

Shakespeare: staging the world is £40 in hardback, £25 in paperback and can be purchased through the British Museum online shop.

Remembering Mark Antony

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

On the first day of August, 31BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt author David Stuttard takes a look back at the real story behind Antony and Cleopatra and  how August got its name…

Two thousand and forty one years ago today, on the 1st of August 30 BC, in the city of Alexandria by the western mouth of the Nile Delta, Mark Antony committed suicide. Popular tradition tells how he died, cradled in the arms of his beloved Queen Cleopatra, and how, shortly afterwards, she took her own life.

As so often happens, however, popular tradition remembers only half the truth – and in this case (in my opinion at least) the half which is forgotten is the more interesting. Yes, Antony did kill himself on August 1st 30 BC, but the circumstances surrounding his death were far from romantic.

Five years before, in the winter of 36-35 BC, Antony had suffered what in all probability was a severe mental breakdown following a disastrous military expedition against Parthia, the great empire which embraced Iraq, Iran and other territories, and which was to prove the bane of Rome for centuries. More than a third of his troops had been wiped out, either in the fighting or in the terrible retreat, and, when he arrived in the safe haven of Syria, Antony himself, nominally one of the two most powerful men in the Roman world, was left pacing the storm-lashed beach waiting for Cleopatra to come and take him home.

Ever since then, his behaviour had become increasingly erratic, and his generalship in the civil war against his erstwhile colleague Octavian had been catastrophic. At the Battle of Actium (2nd September, 31 BC) in western Greece, he and Cleopatra had abandoned their burning fleet, while they themselves took flight for Alexandria. Now, less than a year later, with the ravening Octavian at that city’s gates, the tables turned. Antony’s fleet and army abandoned him. The game was clearly up.

It is now that truth diverges from romantic legend. We like to think that Antony and Cleopatra, passionate lovers to the end, committed suicide in each others’ arms. Not so. In fact, Cleopatra had been negotiating with the enemy for some time. She realised that Antony was a liability, and now she sent a servant to tell him that she was dead. The news, she calculated, would drive Antony to suicide. She was right. But even a successful suicide was beyond Antony’s capabilities. Badly injured, he was taken to Cleopatra. Whether he died from his wounds, or whether the Egyptian queen was forced to expedite his death, we can only speculate.

With Antony disposed of, Cleopatra spent the next ten days negotiating with Octavian. No doubt she tried to win him over as she had once won over both Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, but Octavian was altogether more calculating than either of those hot blooded conquerors had been. In the end, Cleopatra was found dead. How she had died, though, was a mystery. Stories quickly circulated that she had poisoned herself or allowed herself to be bitten by an asp, but the truth was never established. It is perhaps more possible that she was the victim of a state execution.

Yet it was not Cleopatra’s death but Antony’s, which Octavian would celebrate as marking the beginning of his sole command of the Roman world. And when in January 27 BC Octavian took the title of Augustus, he bestowed upon the month, at whose start his rival Antony had died, the same name: August.

David Stuttard and Sam Moorhead’s book, 31 BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt is published by the British Museum Press. Look out for David’s article on the death of Cleopatra in the forthcoming British Museum Magazine.