Peak Bard

I took a tour of Shakespeare’s England yesterday morning – without leaving central London.

It seemed like the right time to do it. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has inspired an extraordinary number of exhibitions and events. I feel as if I reached “peak Bard” some time ago, following the previews for By me William Shakespeare and the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film season (where Sir Ian McKellen restated his view, as in his Richard III, that updated or contemporary costumes can help viewers to understand what’s going on in the plays). Nevertheless, there has been much more to enjoy. . . .

I felt lucky to see the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts for all the reasons given by Russ McDonald in this week’s Shakespeare-inspired issue of the TLS. Between the BL and Somerset House, a Londoner can see pretty much every surviving example of Shakespeare’s handwriting, including the pages of the collaborative play “Sir Thomas More” that are “thought to be” in Shakespeare’s hand; there are also many excellent rarities such as the first quarto of Hamlet, Let this image from the Wooster Group’s Hamlet of 2013 stand for that particular play’s accreted layers of theatre history.

I’m not always convinced that curators under pressure to include interactive technology know exactly what to do with it, but this time it seemed to be well used, so that Harriet Walter, Peter Sellers, Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others could be seen offering animated accompaniments to the books, paintings, theatrical mementos and the rest. The only thing that left me uncertain was the montage of familiar portraits of Shakespeare that greet you as you leave the “prologue” to the exhibition and go down the stairs. It reminded me only of dodgy claims by various people to have found the true face of Shakespeare, and how uncertain and futile such proof-less pursuits can be.

The image of the writer is solidly represented at the Soane Museum’s much smaller but also deeply enjoyable show “The Cloud-Capped Towers”: Shakespeare in Soane’s architectural imagination. The museum, formerly Soane’s home, boasts a permanent Shakespeare Recess just off the main staircase, where the writer presides in the traditional likeness of a “self-satisfied pork butcher” (in J. Dover Wilson’s snooty phrase).

It turns out that Soane’s obsession with Shakespeare went deep: he collected copies of all four seventeenth-century folio editions of the plays, and bought two of the paintings commissioned for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. From the Shakespeare Gallery building itself, on Pall Mall, Soane drew inspiration for his Dulwich Picture Gallery, and he quoted Shakespeare in his Royal Academy lectures. The exhibition’s guest curator Alison Shell, meanwhile, offered an intriguing suggestion: that, in the wake of the French Revolution, the Phrygian caps Soane put on the heads of the cherubs in the Shakespeare Recess were meant to symbolize the poet’s imaginative freedom.

Not so hifalutin, but just as well selected for display, is a copy of The Frolics of Puck, a Shakespeare-inspired work by Soane’s estranged son George. It appears to be quite an invidious object once you think about why father and son were estranged.

From the BL to the Soane to Daniel Crouch Rare Books: this might sound like a further scaling down, but actually the Bury Street specialists in maps and atlases have brought together a wonderful collection; and Rounded with a Sleep, an exhibition celebrating Shakespeare and his contemporary Cervantes, which runs until April 29, is well worth catching.

For a start, there is that tour of Shakespeare’s England I mentioned – a tour in the form of Christopher Saxton’s gorgeously coloured Atlas of England and Wales. Published in 1579, lavished with gold leaf and lapis lazuli, this sumptuous book was kindly opened for me, at first at this page.

Then we leafed through one county, and the next, until we had seen together, in a surprisingly rapt silence, all the forests of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, as well as the hills of the North and Wales, and the rest of Elizabeth I’s barely united realm. All this, one notes, can be yours for a mere £250,000.

The same generous soul who showed me Saxton’s Atlas reminded me that the view of London and Westminster by Wenceslaus Hollar above the fireplace had the name of the Globe Theatre in the wrong place. Yet this engraved panorama of 1647 features convincing also has such as the man walking his dog in Southwark, mounted gentlemen crossing the old London Bridge and a ship listing heavily to one side in the middle of the River Thames. These details are easy to miss in a smaller reproduction, especially when one is concentrating on locating the Globe and that other obvious presence, the old St Paul’s Cathedral.

Further wonders unfolded themselves: the 1768 French edition of Don Quixote plus more Cervantes in eight volumes; the fifth quarto of Hamlet (1637) which claims to be “Newly imprinted and inlarged” (don’t they all?); the 1676 edition of John Speed’s world atlas; the only known surviving copy of Luis Teixeira’s planisphere of 1604, featuring depictions of exotic beasties from every continent (here a tribe of noble savages, there an elephant in a serpentine fix). I admit that such exercises in cartography enthralled me. It’s the thought of Cervantes and Shakespeare, in their different places but the same era, looking on sea beasts and listing ships alike, perhaps. It’s the inkling this exhibition gave me that knowledge and imagination, in atlas terms, are so near allied. As in Teixeira’s map (“universalis et accurata tabula”), with its postulated polar continent and Ethiopian ocean.

Otherwise: visitors to the National Theatre are no doubt booking themselves in for the 5 Hamlets tour; visitors to the south bank of the Thames this weekend will find themselves following the trail of the Complete Walk, a series of films to be shown along the South Bank, laid by Shakespeare’s Globe; visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon will find themselves drawn to the “introductory” Famous Beyond Words; or even tonight’s performance in Holy Trinity Church of Garrick’s reconstructed “Ode”, first performed in Stratford in 1769, and a new Shakespeare Masque with words by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and music by Sally Beamish; while visitors to the Bodleian Library are, I hope, even now dropping in on Shakespeare’s Dead, a suitably punning, morbid Weston Library exhibition. Sticking with the Hamlet theme, and another product of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, here’s the Bodleian’s copy of an engraving based on Henry Fuseli’s version of the ghost appearing to his son.

To think that, amid all this tremendously active Bardolatry, there remains the option of staying home, raising a glass – and reading a play.

Whichever option you take, do consider making time in your busy schedule to listen to today’s episode of TLS Voices. It features an illuminating chat between Ben Okri and Kamila Shamsie, recorded at the Radisson Blu Edwardian, Bloomsbury Street hotel on April 19, as part of the reliably entertaining and engaging Hidden Prologues series that has been mentioned before on this blog. In keeping with my previous post about Charlotte Brontë and the inspiration she provided for later writers, I suspect that Lunatics, Lovers and Poets – the collection of stories to which Okri and Shamsie have contributed (and which is reviewed in this week’s TLS) – demonstrates how certain great authors can shape the literary future. Listen and learn, as I have toured and been amazed . . . .

Read article on the TSL blog.