British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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Shakespeare’s legacy: the Robben Island Bible

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace TrustMatthew Hahn, playwright

I first heard about a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the book and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

These men signed passages within the text which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the Leadership Section of Robben Island.

After hearing this fantastic tale, I determined to write a play based on interviews with as many of the former political prisoners I could find intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.

It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.

Read more about this post and Matthew Hahn’s work on his blog .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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A wooden O



Alan Farlie, Exhibition designer,
RFK Architects Ltd

Explaining the job of an exhibition designer is not straightforward as it depends on the type of exhibition and the type of story being told. For a paintings and drawings show we may work with existing gallery walls and the job is about placement and selection of wall colours. Designing Shakespeare: staging the world was far more complicated than that.

We were finishing the installation of Treasures of Heaven in 2011 when I was asked if we would pitch for the Shakespeare exhibition. The British Museum was already working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the reasons for the pitch was to see how we would work with Tom Piper, Associate Designer at the RSC. At RFK we believe there should be an intellectual foundation to all of our design work and the first stage, before putting pencil to paper, is research. In the case of Shakespeare that involved research into the objects and the story, but also a look at Tom’s work for the RSC and thoughts on the differences between exhibition design and theatre design.

People often talk about ‘theatrical’ design, as shorthand for flamboyant, noisy and in many cases over-blown design. Tom’s designs for the RSC are consciously modern and often stripped back, which immediately struck a chord with us. And an interview with the Guardian reinforced the sense that Tom had a similar approach to his work: “Perhaps surprisingly, Piper starts with the text: reading the script, picking out words, themes, politics – any hook that might snag an idea”. For us it’s the objects rather than the text but the principle is the same. Unless you understand the objects and the curatorial story any exhibition will just be a repeat of some standard formula.

In our pitch to the BM we included sketches that illustrated the principle differences between exhibition and theatre design.

Sketches showing one of the fundamental differences between Theatre and Exhibition – the narrative in a play is defined by the passage of time; the narrative in an exhibition is defined by the visitor passing through space.

In the theatre, the audience remains in a fixed location as the spectacle changes everyone starts the play at the same time and finishes at the same time. The experience is a shared one that unfolds over time.

In an exhibition, the spectacle is fixed. It tends to be an individual experience that unfolds as the visitor moves through the space at his or her own pace, encountering new points of view with every step. Our challenge was to blend the visual language of performance-based stage design with that of object-based exhibition design and to come up with something new and unexpected.

The original section titles as briefed and a diagram showing visitor circulation with London at the heart and non-linear circulation.

The exhibition is structured around the idea of nine ‘Imagined Worlds’ each of which represents different aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. Our first sketches showed the first of these ‘London 1612′ at the heart of the exhibition with all the other sections linking to it. As the design developed it became apparent this would not work practically but we felt it was important to retain the sense of London being at the exhibition’s heart, if not its physical centre.

Early sketch illustrating the idea of seeing through to the books.

We were also struck by the resonances of an exhibition about ‘the text’ being staged within the Round Reading Room, which is still a working library and from the outset wanted to express that connection. In the final design this was achieved by cutting a series of slot windows that give views onto the bookstacks.

The first draft of the design model

To develop the design, we used a series of models at various scales. Models are perfect for collaborations of this kind and allow for immediate exchange of ideas. They are not precious and are there to be cut and carved as part of the process. The first draft, shown here, has just four elements (the large ring is the lighting ring originally installed for The First Emperor exhibition): at bottom left is London or the ‘Wooden O’ as it became known; at top right is a second curve that enclosed ‘The New World’ and in the centre of the room, two large walls that carried two of the largest objects (Fialletti’s view of Venice and the Sheldon Tapestry Map, which featured in previous blogs) and also began to define Venice, Arden and Great Britain. This basic structure of circles, arcs and straight walls was overlaid and developed to become the exhibition now on display.

Final version of the model

This photo of the (almost) final design shows how the circle of the ‘Wooden O’ breaks down and is repeated at different scales in combination with the flat painted walls to create the different worlds. In the first section the curved walls are finished in stained plywood fixed vertically to reference the architecture of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In the next section the plywood breaks up to form the ‘trees’ of the Forest of Arden with a sandblasted and stained finish. In medieval England and the Classical world of Julius Caesar the plywood is laid on its side and whitewashed to reference monumental stonework. And to represent the world of Macbeth a charred and blackened finish combines with a deep red and a series of slots to create a sense of menace and uncertainty.

The final section focuses on the strange and foreign New World of The Tempest. As the new lands were so full of surprises for the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorers, so this final space in the exhibition speaks of a blank canvas, a liminal space, full of potential and wonder. This is invoked using the vocabulary of contemporary art galleries and cinema. The walls, floor and ceiling are white and the lighting is diffuse so that this space evokes the starkness of the White Cube and the other-worldliness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

This is just a taster of the work that went into the design and there are many other collaborations that are an essential part of putting together an exhibition of this scale. In particular we worked closely with the lighting designer (Zerlina Hughes of Studio ZNA) and digital media consultant (David Bickerstaff at Newangle) as well as the in house graphic designer at the British Museum. So finally – a couple of images of the completed exhibition – I hope you get a chance to see it.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Henry V prologue). Above the First Folio the ceiling beams radiate to reach out, beyond the wooden O, to Shakespeare’s imagined worlds. © Nick Rochowski Photography

The final section takes its cue from the white walls of modern gallery spaces to invoke ‘the shock of the new’. Strange objects and creatures from the new world are displayed in a soft diffuse light. © Nick Rochowski Photography

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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The tale of a tapestry



Maggie Wood, Keeper of Social History,
Warwickshire Museum Service

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire was woven in the 1590s, and was one of a set of four tapestry maps made to hang in Ralph Sheldon’s house in south Warwickshire.

It’s a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire – a bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s landscape.

Before arrival at the British Museum for the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, the tapestry has spent over a year undergoing conservation. This work has enabled us to get close to the tapestry, and make exciting discoveries!

Removing the old lining revealed the vibrant original colour – it was very green! Light has faded the yellow colour from the green wool, so that the tapestry front now looks blue instead of green.

Original green and yellow on reverse of tapestry, contrasted with faded colour on the front

The tapestry’s border was replaced in the 17th century. Removing the lining revealed fragments of the original Elizabethan border – much more lively and colourful than the later replacement.

Original tapestry border

In April 2011, the tapestry went to Belgium to be wet-cleaned. De Wit is a famous tapestry workshop which has developed a safe and fast method of wet-cleaning large textiles. The Sheldon Tapestry was washed, rinsed and dried in one day!

Water samples taken during the wet-cleaning, with dirtiest on left!

Gently sponging the tapestry during wet-cleaning

Wet-cleaning didn’t restore the original bright colour, lost through light damage, but it did make tiny details easier to see.

The Rollright Stones, a Neolithic monument built at a similar time to Stonehenge, appear on the tapestry in the lower right corner. They are very hard to spot!
This is probably the first known visual depiction of this ancient site.

Rollright Stones – just below the windmill

We’ve now noticed that this bear’s claws are blue and that there are many tiny cottages hidden in the Forest of Arden.

Left: Bear with blue claws Right: Cottage in the Forest of Arden

We have made many new and fascinating discoveries during the last year, which has helped to build our knowledge of this wonderful object and its history.

Raising the tapestry into place with pulleys

See related article published 30 August 2012 in The Art Newspaper: Ancient Stones revealed on tapestry (This information was added on 13 September 2012)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Installing Shakespeare: staging the world


Becky Allen, Project Curator: Shakespeare

The three-week installation of the British Museum’s major new exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world has just finished, and the Reading Room has been transformed.

With over 190 objects, and 38 lenders, there has been a lot of work to do. One of the most impressive aspects of the experience has been witnessing how many colleagues, both within and outside the Museum, have come together to bring the exhibition to life. It is a real team effort to create an exhibition on this scale, and it calls on skills and experience of all kinds, from conservation specialists to lighting technicians, heavy object handlers to designers.

The exhibition features a huge range of objects, including coins, armour, textiles, sculpture and much more. One of the most exciting, and perhaps surprising, aspects of the show is how many paintings it includes – 21 in total from many different lenders. For me, watching the paintings being hung has been a highlight of the installation. One of my favourites is the enormous 1611 bird’s-eye view of Venice from Eton College. The painting has only travelled twice: first from Venice to Eton, where it was hung in 1636, and then from Eton to the British Museum.

As you can see from the photograph, hanging the painting safely required careful coordination and teamwork. Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most important imagined places, and is often the setting for his brilliant examinations of outsiders in society – Shylock the Jew and Othello, the ‘moor of Venice’, being powerful examples. The painting is populated with figures and really brings the Venice section to life – it’s a great pleasure seeing it each morning.

Museum assistants and specialist art handlers hanging the ‘Bird’s-eye view of Venice’ by Odoardo Fialetti, 1611. (Eton College, Windsor)

Another remarkable painting comes from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. It is a beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I known as ‘The Sieve Portrait’, by Quentin Metsys the Younger, dated 1583. In the portrait Elizabeth holds a sieve, symbolic of chastity. This association comes originally from the story of the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia who proved her own virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It’s a beautiful and striking painting which makes a real statement about the presence and theatricality of Elizabeth, queen at the time Shakespeare moved to London and began to write and act.

Museum assistants from the British Museum hanging ‘The Sieve Portrait’ by Quentyn Metsys the Younger, 1583. (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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When the world came to London


Dora Thornton, Exhibition Curator

Four centuries ago, the world began to come to London, which was reaching for the status of a world city. It was a time in which so many aspects of the modern world have their origins. In the forthcoming exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world we explore these developments though the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. It was above all in the London playhouse that Shakespeare’s generation explored the strangeness and variety of humankind. Shakespeare gave his people, and London’s visitors, a vocabulary and a vision with which they could explore who they were and what it meant to be English, British, or a citizen of the world.

Looking at the Moor’s Head Cup, made by
Christoph Jamnitzer in Munich around 1600,
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

As curator of the exhibition, I have had an exciting time over the last four years thinking my way into Shakespeare’s world with objects. It is a new kind of undertaking, and I have had to feel my way between objects and texts, to the extent that it would be impossible to say which came first in articulating the imagined places of Shakespeare’s plays for our visitors.

The exhibition is structured around Shakespeare’s real and imaginary locations — a brilliant concept put forward by the Shakespearean consultant to the exhibition, Professor Jonathan Bate. Through the innovative design of the display, visitors will travel through different settings as they were imagined in the London playhouse. Each place will have its own distinctive feel and atmosphere so that the visitor journeys with Shakespeare’s original audiences.

Following on from the approach of A History of the World in 100 objects, we have chosen objects which take the visitor directly to issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences. The objects express things that were new; things that had been lost or destroyed; things that were changing or challenging; new cultural encounters and human traffic in a period of expanding global contacts; contested or even explosive political ambitions.

The aim is to create a dialogue between Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds, and the real world as his generation experienced it.

Our collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company allows us to introduce an element of performance into the display in evoking “this wooden O” of the London playhouse. It also enables us to bring Shakespeare’s words into the exhibition through digital interventions which our visitors can experience both independently and in juxtaposition with the objects.

The first object is The First Folio of 1623, which preserved Shakespeare’s output as a dramatic artist for all time and assured his classic status. It is not just a text, but an iconic object in its own right, entirely appropriate to a British Museum exhibition in that we work with objects which are also texts; texts which are also objects (think of the Rosetta Stone, the Franks casket, or the Cyrus cylinder.)

We end with another iconic object which is also a text: ‘the Robben Island Bible': a cheap edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare which was secretly kept in the Robben Island jail by Sonny Venkatrathnam, hidden beneath Diwali cards and circulated among the political prisoners there. They found a common bond in Shakespeare as they did in their fight against apartheid, and many of them autographed their favourite passages; Shakespeare texts which meant something to them. The book will be open at Nelson Mandela’s favourite passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.” Unpacking that book on its arrival from South Africa has been the single most moving part of installing the exhibition for me. The arc from the First Folio to the Robben Island Bible is surely a journey worth taking.

Dora Thornton (right) and Becky Allen reading the Robben Island Bible

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Building a nation

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Flag That Failed examines some of the challenges involved in uniting England and Scotland.

Design proposals for the new flag of Great Britain, from 1603-4. © The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland


John Morrill, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge

I think James had real problems with the union of England and Scotland from the very beginning. There was the great problem that he was a Scot taking over England – the junior kingdom taking over the senior kingdom, as it were – by which I mean that for many centuries the English had claimed that Scotland was a feudal dependency of England.

Such historical prejudices and historical legacies made it very difficult for a rapid movement. Initially, James went for an all-out push for union; political union, economic union, religious union. But very quickly he saw that the scale of the opposition was too great so he backed off and went for what he called the `union of hearts and minds’.

There was such a long animosity between the peoples of England and Scotland that the idea of them becoming one new people came up against a huge amount of prejudice. James wanted to try and get rid of this prejudice. For many centuries there had been border raiding and people in the far north of England rustling and stealing in southern Scotland and visa versa. What James did was to create a new administrative structure called the Middle Shires which brought the English and Scots together to sort out lawlessness in this particular region, and it worked pretty well.

James did small things wherever he could which slowly and surely moved the two nations towards being willing to have more of a union. He created a new coinage and, as we hear in today’s programme, he attempts to create a flag for this new nation.

What he couldn’t do is anything which affected legal freedom, and he couldn’t touch the property of the subjects in either kingdom without the agreements of his parliaments. The problem was the English would always preferred to create common institutions covering the whole of the island, so there would be one parliament, there would be one system of law, there would be one church. What the Scots preferred was a federal structure in which both countries retained independent institutions but they co-ordinated, they worked together. In a sense the Scots would always prefer devolution to integration.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme The Flag That Failed

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The role of the pedlar

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Disguise and Deception looks at the importance of appearances in Elizabethan England.


Margaret Spufford, historian

The pedlar was a very elusive figure indeed. He (or she – there were women pedlars too) was peripatetic and they lived literally near the edge of society, the vagrant fringe.

Pedlars were essentially salesmen who worked in and out of markets and there were large groups of them around big towns. London had the largest contingent of pedlars who would have worked out of the city, up and down the roads. There would have been people circulating to and fro; some people travelled as far as Edinburgh to London and back. They travelled by foot, carrying their wares in packs on their backs. As they became more prosperous, they might have been able to afford to buy a horse.

As well as pedlars based in the bigger cities, there were those based solely in individual market towns all over the country. They would live in a market town and would work out of it, circulating during the week to spread wares.

Pedlars were also entertainers. They were certainly multi-skilled and often earned their night’s lodging by singing. They sang, told stories, shared the latest news. Pedlars were talkers and were highly socially skilled people. In fact, I would say that the whole business of singing and performing which you find amongst these people is an aid to selling. The skills are almost indistinguishable, they have to be entertainers to make a living.

Their role was extremely important in circulating goods and news very widely, but they were unpopular with the authorities. Pedlars were heavily legislated against. I think there were something like 11 bills in parliament against pedlars and hawkers in the 17th century. They were beaten, they were unpopular and with a town’s shopkeeper they were very unpopular indeed because their living was being undercut by the pedlars’ presence.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Disguise and Deception

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The Salcombe Bay treasure

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode From London to Marrakech looks at sunken treasure and global trade networks.


Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

This extraordinary find, discovered at Salcombe Bay in Devon in 1994, provides a glimpse into a fascinating period of history. In 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Barbary Company was established to facilitate trade between England and Morocco. English merchants were excited by the commercial possibilities of obtaining sugar, saltpetre for making gunpowder and gold which was in short supply in Europe at this time.

Stories of the Moroccan ruler Ahmad al-Masur’s 1591 conquest of gold-rich Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa filtered out to the West and increased the desire for trade. A letter from one Laurence Madoc to Anthony Dassel (called ‘a merchant of London’ in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) describes the feat of the conquest: ‘there went… for those parts seventeen hundred men: who passing over the sands for want of water perished one third part of them: and at their coming the Negroes made some resistance but to small purpose.’ Madoc marvels at the quality of gold available to the Moroccan ruler: ‘The rent of Tomboto [Timbuktu] is 60 quintals of golde by the yeere’ (approximately 600 kilos).

Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603) was known as al-Dhahabi, ‘the golden one’. He is said to have paid his functionaries in pure gold; his palace supposedly had golden walls. Legend also has it that during his reign, ‘1,400 hammers continuously struck coins at the palace gate.’ He had excellent relations with Elizabeth I. About a quarter of the coins from the wreck – more than a hundred – were struck by this ruler, and another hundred were struck by one of his sons Mawlay Zaydan (r.1608-27). The rest are mostly coins of other members of the family, down to the 1630s.

How were they acquired? In the souk of any city in the Islamic world, money-changers and dealers in jewellery would have been located together and often conducted both businesses. The fact that much of the jewellery is in pieces suggests that out merchant or sea captain obtained this as bullion to be melted down.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme From London to Marrakech

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Using your head

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode City Life, Urban Strife examines an apprentice’s cap from 400 years ago.

Woollen cap that would have been worn by an Elizabethan artisan or apprentice.
© Trustees of the British Museum


James Shapiro, Professor of English, Columbia University

When I think about how ubiquitous hats were in Shakespeare’s day it makes me think of going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and seeing everybody wearing a baseball cap or watching Mad Men and seeing so many working men wearing fedoras back in 1960.

We no longer live in a culture where everybody wears caps or hats – and hats no longer signify the same things. Shakespeare did live in such a time and he understood exactly what it meant. On stage, that moment in several of his plays when actors all throw their caps in the air would have meant something quite specific to theatre-goers. The survival of this cap speaks to things from the Elizabethan era that have almost been lost to us.

Throwing caps in the air could be a sign of celebration, it could be an expression of joy, or it could also be an expression of let’s throw the social order over.

In early modern culture, almost everybody from the highest to the lowest levels of society lived and worked in somebody else’s household in one capacity or another. An apprentice was somebody who was learning a trade and to become a master at that trade you had to undergo an apprenticeship. So in terms of what we think of as social class, the early modern ‘apprentice’ is a more fluid term than we might imagine, not the 19th century Dickensian image that it typically evokes.

Those who wore the cap in Elizabethan England were not just apprentices. There was a law, instituted in 1571, that every male aged six and above who was not a gentleman had to wear a wool cap—an effective way for the government to support the crucial wool trade. These caps had to be worn by every male on Sundays and on holidays. They didn’t have to wear them seven days a week but it was the law that you had to wear a woollen cap quite like this one.

The Elizabethan government had an investment in what people wore. These sumptuary laws would ordinarily tell you what you should not wear. In 1597, for example, Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation ordering people of lower social orders not to wear various kinds of clothing or trim limited to those above their social station. This was a way of visibly creating, or reinforcing, social divisions. Most sumptuary laws were meant to ensure that when you walked down the street you knew who was your social superior and who your inferior.

In specifying what you should wear, instead of what you shouldn’t or couldn’t, the ‘statute cap’ is an exception to that. The cap is the only sumptuary law we know in which the government said you are going to wear this on Sundays and holidays – and obviously not everybody liked that.

In fact, Shakespeare’s own uncle flouted the law.

In October 1583 (when Shakespeare was still living in Stratford and was probably 19 years old or so) his uncle Henry, who lived nearby in Snetterfield, was fined eight pence for refusing to wear his cap to church, according to the form of the statute. When uncle Henry refused to pay up he was fined him another two pence.

Henry was a farmer and this is a time in the Midlands when enclosure was on the rise. I suspect that he was not the only farmer who deeply resented rich land owners enclosing fields and turning fields into places for sheep rather then for grain or workers to earn a living. So I don’t think his refusal to wear a cap was a fashion statement so much as a political statement that not everybody had signed onto these statute caps.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme City Life, Urban Strife

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

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600 years ago #onthisday in 1414, the Sultan of Bengal sent a giraffe as tribute to the Yongle emperor of China. The animal arrived at the Ming court to great acclaim and was thoroughly documented in words and images, like in this hanging scroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many exotic animals were sent as tribute to the Ming court from lands visited by the imperial fleet and its admiral Zheng He.

You can see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in our new exhibition #Ming50Years, until 5 Jan 2015.
#china #art #scroll #giraffe Born #onthisday in 1867: Arthur Rackham. Here's his illustration to A Midsummer Night's Dream #art #illustration #shakespeare It's #TalkLikeAPirateDay so here's R take on it... Our new exhibition #Ming50Years is now open! Discover 50 years that changed China #china #history #art #exhibition Just 2 days until #Ming50Years opens! Here's one of the beautiful highlight objects.

Gilded bronze figure of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha. Nanjing, China, Ming dynasty, Yongle mark and period, 1403–1424. It’s only 3 days until #Ming50Years opens! Have you booked your tickets?
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