All entries for Friday 17 October 2008

October 17, 2008

Shakespeare and Art: Stuart Sillars and Rosie Dias

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It's been a bit of a week for seminars. This, the first session of the Humanities Research Centre's interdisciplinary research series, was of particular interest, it dealing with questions of Shakespeare and his cultural reception in the 18th century, the era during which bardolatry escalated and the apocrypha became just that - apocryphal.

Stuart Sillars is over for a few days from the University of Bergen in Norway, and presented a paper on 'Reading Illustrated Shakespeare: Issues and Methods'. This was a fascinating paper beginning with the start of the 18th century editorial tradition. Even Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition included etchings, and Sillars provided insightful commentary on the importance and impact of pictures. Through the illustrations chosen to accompany text, we see an attempt to direct and guide the reader's imaginative process, drawing them towards those moments which the editor and artist feel of most interest or significance. One image that particularly struck me was the selection of Pistol apprehending a French soldier; both an image of national pride in the light of then-current wars with France, but also a satirical commentary on warfare through our received understanding of Pistol's own character. Sillars finds, particularly in early illustrations, an illusion of stagecraft probably unfounded in actual practice, but indicative of a contemporary understanding of dramatic representation; that is, the illustrations depict what the artists imagine themselves to see on stage, even when that might be technically impossible to actually represent.

Frontispiece from Rowe
Frontispiece from Rowe's edition of Shakespeare

As the century progressed, we find more naturalistic images in the serialised editions of John Bell, which began creating 'real' scenes in naturalistic settings (yet, perhaps paradoxically, often still depicting the leading actors of the day in the roles). Then, Charles Knight's 1838-42 edition, entitled Pictorial Shakespeare, placed great emphasis on historical accuracy and included pictorial footnotes illustrating artefacts from the period in question, "visual annotations". Sillars also went into detail on the implications of the specific placement of images within the text, particularly as to whether they appeared in advance of the action represented or alongside it. The illustrated edition represents the intersection between the scholarly and popular version of Shakespeare, and in many ways maps the increasing idea of the author as unique poetic genius - even in Rowe's edition, see the above frontispiece which depicts Shakespeare in an almost iconographic way. In later editions, we saw such allegories as images appearing within large mirrors, Shakespeare thus 'holding up a mirror to nature'.

Rosie Dias, from Warwick's History of Art department, then gave her paper on 'Boydell's Shakespeare: Illustration and Imagination', which dealt more specifically with the opening of The Shakespeare Gallery in 1789 by Boydell, the foremost print seller of his day. In many ways, this opening was a visual culmination of the growing trends of bardolatry, and the kinds of commission represented this; the country's leading painters were commissioned to create canvases depicting scenes from Shakespeare's works, as well as engravings to be bound into folio form.

Fuseli's Titania and Bottom from the Tate Britain website

The most fascinating part of Dias' talk, from the point of view of my research, was the discussion of Fuseli, who contributed several works to the Gallery, most famously Titania and Bottom (which has been the production image for Gregory Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream this year). Fuseli used Shakespeare to register his own artistic identity, to canonise his own (self-perceived) genius. Fuseli, apparently, was rather mad, mind addled by opium, and in attaching his own slightly unhinged artistic personality to the imagery of Shakespeare, he was able to appropriate Shakespeare's 'genius' for himself. Dias provided a fascinating close analysis of this canvas, in particular drawing out the increasing grotesquery of the characters as our eyes move to the fringes of the canvas (the woman with the tiny old man on a lead being a particular highlight, though my own eyes are drawn to the demonic figure being held by the witch in the bottom right hand corner). She also demonstrated the visual referencing of earlier masters, again a self-conscious attempt to place himself within a visual canon. Shakespeare was, by this stage, the epitome of original genius, and Fuseli saw himself as the artistic equivalent. The fact that this is such a famous painting, of course, may perhaps bear this out; though it is impossible to separate poetic and artistic genius in this kind of image. I would imagine that far more people recognise Shakespeare in this picture than Fuseli; that Fuseli in this case effectively piggybacks on Shakespeare's cultural capital. This doesn't make Fuseli any less of a genius, however; his genius is in the remaking of Shakespeare in his own image.

The last comments to draw out of Dias' talk deal with the representation of Shakespeare himself that stood above the door to the gallery, showing him being simultaneously inspired by poetry and painting. Dias suggests that, rather than choose one over the other, it is through Shakespeare that Boydell wished to show poetry and painting meeting to create a greater whole. Shakespeare being the catalyst for this is a significant indicator of the rise of bardolatrous attitudes; no longer a simple dramatist, he is the conduit for all the creative arts, the point at which they can intersect and create truly great things. One thing not mentioned in either of the two talks in this session is the fact that Shakespearean scenes were beginning to be granted the kinds of artistic treatment more usually reserved for Biblical or Greco-Roman mythologies; yet another factor in the elevation of Shakespeare to classical dominance.

Histories of Drinking

The Arts Faculty Postgraduate Seminar Series kicked off on Wednesday with a massive turn-out for a session called Histories of Drinking (now there's a way to drag in the PhDs!). Papers as follows:

  • Deborah Toner (History) : 'The National Disease: Alcoholism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico'
  • Mark Hailwood (History) : 'John Jarret and Roaring Dick of Dover: Popular Attitudes to Drinking in Seventeenth-Century England'
  • Dr. Demmy Verbeke (Renaissance Studies) : 'Contra Nycticoraces: The Humanists' Approach to Drunkenness'

I'm not going to review or provide synopses of the papers, of course, but there were some interesting jumping-off points for some of my own ideas which I wanted to log while they're still in my mind.

What leaped out at me from Deborah's paper, which provided a historical and literary reading of the impact of alcoholism in Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, was the iterated concern with the effects of alcoholism on subsequent generations, in terms of it causing mental and social dysfunctionality (one fear articulated was that the children would grow up to be animal rights activists, amusingly!). The effects of drinking on children are of interest to me too, yet from a different angle - in the early modern period, there is often explicit connection between drunkenness and infertility, the inability to (ahem) "stand to", as the Porter puts it. Obviously we're separated here by a gap of several hundred years, but I found the difference in focus interesting; perhaps in the early modern period, with the need to have as many children as possible owing to the high infant mortality rate, this idea of a man rendering himself impotent through alcohol was far more serious; his main responsibility being to ensure the continuation of the species. As the centuries passed and children stood a great chance of surviving their first years, the focus presumably shifted towards the subtler and longer-lasting effects on children; the quality of their survival rather than survival itself. However, to pursue that thought further I'd have to know a lot more about 19th century Mexico! I also wondered about a parallel with 20th century Ireland, another culture (fairly or unfairly) associated with the enjoyment of alcohol, but where there was also a concern with future generations, this time through the Catholic church's attitude towards contraception and birth control. Mexico was also a heavily Catholic culture, though in answer to my question Deborah suggested that the populace was by and large secular, their day-to-day lives less governed by religious matters. I'm going to stop this train of thought now as it starts extending into areas where I'm entirely unqualified to venture (and it's nothing at all to do with authorship studies!), but it strikes me that there is interesting work to be done on the relationship between alcohol, its effect on generations, contraception and the Church.

Then, Mark's paper focussed on ballads, which he put forward as one of the most effective media for understanding the attitudes of common people towards social issues in the seventeenth century. As well as being a hugely entertaining paper, this opened up a fascinating area of potential interest to me which I hadn't previously considered. One of the most important recent writers on authorship studies is Jonathan Hope, who determines authorship via socio-linguistic factors. So, for example, a university-educated city-born writer might use all the latest emerging word forms and grammatical usage, whereas a rurally-educated writer might show a tendency towards older grammatical forms. It's a fascinating study which I haven't gotten fully into yet. However, Mark's paper pointed out the differences in attitude towards drinking and plebeian culture that can be seen in the penny-ballads as compared to, say, Ben Jonson. We have the means to see how poor people represented themselves, and how they were represented by relatively priviliged city dramatists - a group which, again, includes Shakespeare. It's interesting to note that Shakespeare's most famous representation of a hawker of ballads is Autolycus, who appears in a rural sheep-shearing festival rather than in the city, which was the primary printing centre of ballads, even though they were often set in the provinces. Yet, while Shakespeare effectively gives the illusion of a provincial and grass-roots level approach to drinking attitudes, he is of course a London dramatist writing in a city environment. One aspect which might be of genuine interest to my studies is to look at taverns; several of the anonymous apocryphal plays feature provincial inns, which I have a sneaking suspicion are actually far more representative of London taverns than actual provincial inns. Having a closer look at the ballads and getting a sense of how plebeian culture represented itself and its environments could therefore be useful in providing necessary social context to explore how engaged with country/city life the plays actually were.

This is a little rambling, my thoughts aren't fully formed. It's flashes of momentary inspiration rather than concrete new directions to take my research in. It's always a pleasure, though, to find new ideas coming out of seminars which you didn't expect to intersect with your own research at all!


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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