lady painting

 

Oct 2012 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Shakespeare lovers should visit the British Museum’s excellent exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World (until 25 November), launched in time for the 2012 Olympics. It offers some rousing videos and voice-overs by the Royal Shakespeare Company, such as Sir Ian McKellan’s dazzling Prospero soliloquy, Sir Antony Sher’s poignant Shylock ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ appeal, and Harriet Walter’s emotive rendition of Cleopatra’s suicide speech.

Yet the author of these words did not write just for the refined literary palette but for bear-baiters, prostitutes and bawdy pub-goers - the typical clientele of his day. In Elizabethan England, purpose-built theatres were created to house the burgeoning talent of play-writing. Shakespeare was the house dramatist of the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men at the Globe.

His plays resonate with political controversies of the time. Objects excavated by the Museum in the local Globe and Rose Theatre areas tell the tale. Among the amulets and talismans is the gold Ides of March coin commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. This time of duelling and battle is conveyed by the rapiers and daggers excavated in Bankside. A dagger fished out of the Thames records the gang violence of Romeo and Juliet, and a Spanish rapier resembles the one Othello used to kill himself. The Lyte Jewel, a diamond-studded locket portraying James I by miniaturist James Hilliard, indicates the King’s obsession with lineage and succession. This and his fear of witchcraft are said to have inspired Hamlet and Macbeth.

Though he made his name in London, the Bard remained true to his regional roots. But his pastoral nostalgia did not idealise the plight of the tenant farmer, as we learn from the history plays.

The many paintings on display provide a social commentary on the times. Some are mythological, some are allegorical and some suggest contemporary events on which the plays are based. For instance, the portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I is a possible source of Othello. A flower painting bears a quote from Ophelia in Hamlet Act IV: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Another painting, attributed to Lucas de Heere, shows Henry VIII with his daughters Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, while another idealises Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen with Sir Francis Walsingham, her over-assiduous Protestant spymaster. There is a famous painting of the metaphysical poet John Donne as a melancholy lover, reflected in As You Like It.

Listen to Anthony Sher’s Shylock appeal for common humanity across the ethnic divide while studying a scroll of the Book of Esther dated 1573, possibly commissioned by a Jewish painter for a Christian printer. A Sabbath lamp dates from before the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. I was surprised to learn that Henry VIII used Jewish law to justify his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Reformation promised Hebrew study as one of the two ancient biblical languages. Also, a medallion inscribed with the names of Elijah de Lattes and his mother Rica dated 1552 was a tribute to Jewish lineage in Christian society. Less happy was the story of Rodrigo Lopez, the Queen’s doctor executed in 1594 over an alleged plot to poison her.

The Venetian ghettoes from which Shakespeare drew Shylock are contrasted with Shakespeare’s London, whose tiny, illegal communities of Jewish conversos or marranos, like Protestant refugees gathering in the suburbs, made London a vibrant place for trade and cultural exchange. There is a rare copy of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio, published seven years after his death, featuring one of the most famous portrait engravings of the Bard by Martin Droeshout.

Gloria Tessler

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