Seeing What Shakespeare Means

April 3 through August 21, 1999

Understanding Shakespeare's language is not always easy. Four hundred years of "static" intervene between his writing and our reading and hearing. While most of Shakespeare's immense vocabulary is still in use, and many ideas and figures to which he refers are still part of our culture, some of his words and references seem foreign to us. Fortunately, books from Shakespeare's time contain woodcuts and engravings that give us ways of literally seeing what Shakespeare means. This exhibition draws from the Folger's rich collections of early books, highlighting images that illuminate Shakespeare's text and that have been used to aid readers of the The New Folger Library Shakespeare.

Only through pictures can we visualize many of the objects, places, pastimes, and customs of Shakespeare's everyday life. These include the male attire of doublet and hose, the cattle markets of Eastcheap, and the sports of bearbaiting and bowls. Pictures also let us see how Shakespeare and his contemporaries imagined the world. Their education was very different from our own, with their time in school devoted almost exclusively to the classics - texts in Latin and Greek that often featured mythological subjects. It was thus natural for Shakespeare to present or allude to the harpy and the phoenix, Leander and Hercules, Cupid and Diana, whose images appear in the exhibition. Pictures also illuminate much of the conventional wisdom quoted in Shakespeare's plays. We can understand many of Shakespeare's lines with lightning speed if we have the right visual images before us - if, for example, we can see the figure of Time as he "goes on crutches" or see a picture of the world "going on wheels." This exhibition presents a sample of the Folger's vast holdings of the visual arts of Shakespeare's day and thus makes visible much of Shakespeare's remarkable language.

Visualizing Shakespeare

One way in which illustrations can inform our readings of Shakespeare is by helping us visualize the objects, places, and customs of his day that are no longer familiar. Sometimes Shakespeare refers directly to such things; at other times, as in the case of the doublet and hose, Shakespeare uses the everyday reference to illustrate a figurative idea.

I could find in my heart to disgrace my man's apparel and to cry like
a woman, but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose
ought to show itself courgeous to petticoat.
As You Like It (2.4.4-7)



Doublet and hose, typical male attire consisting of a close-fitting jacket and breeches, here stands for the male as petticoat stands for the female.



From Robert Greene, A quip for an upstart courtier, London, 1620.


I could be sad. This does make some obstruction in the blood, this
cross-gartering, but what of that?
Twelfth Night (3.4.21-23)


Cross-gartering, the fashion of wearing ribbons tied round the knees, is mentioned nine times in Twelfth Night, all in relation to the duping of Malvolio, whose normal attire is sober and unadorned. After looking at the picture, one can see why Malvolio speaks of the style's potential for causing discomfort.



From Abraham de Bruyn, Omnium pene Europae, Asiae, Aphricae . . .
gentium habitus,
Antwerp, c1581.


Queen: What sport shall we devise here in this garden
To drive away the heavy thought of care?
Lady: Madam, we'll play at bowls.
Queen: 'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs
And that my fortune runs against the bias
Richard II (3.4.1-5)

Richard's sad and pensive Queen desires some diversion to make her forget her cares and woes. She rejects the suggestion of a game of bowls, punning on the terms rub (an obstruction that hinders or deflects the course of the bowl) and bias (the curve that brings the ball to the desired point).



From Le centre de l'amour, Paris, c1650.



. . . we are at the stake
And bayed about with many enemies. . . .
Julius Caesar (4.1.52-53)

Bearbaiting was a bloodsport in which dogs attacked a bear chained to a stake. Extremely popular in Shakespeare's time, the sport took place in market squares, village greens, and in urban arenas such as the famous Paris and Bear Gardens on London's Bankside, where Shakespeare's Globe was also located. At least one theater, the Hope, which opened on the Bankside in 1614, was used both for playing and bearbaiting.




From Giacomo Franco, Habiti d'huomeni et donne venetiane, c1609.


. . . upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
. . . she is fast my wife. . . .
Measure for Measure (1.2.142-144)



In Shakespeare's time, couples who clasped hands and exchanged vows before witnesses performed a ceremony called handfasting, after which they were widely regarded as legally married.




From George Wither, A collection of emblemes, London, 1635.



Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death,
whipping, and hanging.
Measure for Measure (5.1.596-597)


To drive home his dismay at being forced to marry the prostitute ("punk") he has impregnated, Lucio compares his fate to the worst kinds of punishment he can imagine. The first example he gives, pressing to death, was a form of torture in which the body of an accused person who refused to speak was crushed under a mass of stones.


From The life and death of Griffin Flood, London, 1623.



Prince: Where sups he? Doth the old boar feed in the old frank?
Bardolph: At the old place, my lord, in Eastcheap.
Henry IV, Part II (2.2.145-147)

Eastcheap was an area of London filled with markets and taverns. Prince Hal's humorous description of Falstaff as "the old boar" is the nearest Shakespeare comes to specifying the favorite haunt of Hal, Falstaff, and company as the celebrated Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap.



From Hugh Alley, A Caveat for the City of London, Manuscript, 1598.



For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard
Hamlet (3.4.229-230)

A petard was a military explosive, a small cone-shaped bomb
used to breach a gate or wall.


From Louis de Gaya, A treatise of the arms and engines of war, London, 1678.



Imagining Shakespeare

As an age of exploration and discovery, the Renaissance was awash in the marvelous: the wonders of nature itself, of the strange practices and customs of newly discovered worlds, of the individual's fantastic imaginings, and of the characters and strange creatures brought into the public consciousness through the period's immersion in classical mythology. Shakespeare's plays offer us a window into this imaginative world of the Renaissance. Images depicting these strange creatures, stories, and characters help us to understand the imaginative context of the plays and the world in which they were written.

And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
Othello (1.3.166-170)

. . . men
Whose heads stood in their breasts?
The Tempest (3.3.61-62)

This image from Lycosthenes' appropriately entitled Prodigiorum (of Prodigies or Wonders), depicts one of the strange sights Othello has encountered in his travels. Tales of these and other marvelous beings comprise the whole of the "witchcraft" with which Othello confesses to having captured Desdemona's heart. Surprisingly, the same set of images - cannibals, anthropophagi, and the men with heads beneath their shoulders - appears in the play and on a single page of the Prodigiorum.



From Conrad Lycosthenes, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, Basel, 1557.


Were man as rare as phoenix.
As You Like It (4.3.18)

. . . Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.
The Tempest (3.3.26-29)




Enter Ariel, like a harpy.
The Tempest (3.3.69 SD)

Rosalind's proverbial statement in As You Like It refers to the Phoenix, of which there is only one living at any given time. Every five hundred years it consumes itself in fire and rises again from the ashes. In The Tempest, Sebastian wryly recalls this aviary wonder to express amazement at the "strange shapes" bringing in a mysterious banquet to him and his shipwrecked mates. No sooner do several of the crew take up the invitation to eat and drink than Ariel appears to them as a harpy, a mythological creature with the face and breasts of a woman and the wings and talons of a bird, and makes the food and drink vanish. This incident is modeled on stories from the Argonautica and Aeneid of harpies destroying or devouring the food of starving travelers. The passage quoted here is actually a rather striking stage direction.

From Conrad Lycosthenes, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, Basel, 1557.


He shall present Hercules in minority. His enter and exit shall be
strangling a snake.
Love's Labor's Lost (5.1.133-135)

Classical mythology constitutes the single most important body of material that Shakespeare drew upon in constructing his plays. Whether used for comic, ironic, or tragic effect, Shakespeare's many allusions to classical mythology introduce us to (or remind us of) words and images that significantly enlarge the scope and widen our perspective of the individual plays. Hercules was a mythological character of whom Shakespeare made frequent use. In this image of the legendary hero, he is depicted as a child, strangling the two snakes sent to destroy him when he was in the cradle. Shakespeare's recurring use of images of Hercules reminds us that mythological characters were part of the common currency of language in his day.

From Le dodichi fatiche d'Hercole, Florence, c1600.


. . . Leander . . . went . . . [to] the Hellespont and, being taken
with the cramp, was drowned.
As You Like It (4.1.105-110)

Leander the good swimmer.
Much Ado About Nothing (5.2.30-31)

In Greek mythology, Leander was a famous lover who drowned while swimming across the Hellespont to see his sweetheart Hero. In Much Ado About Nothing Benedick claims that Leander's suffering as a lover is nothing as compared to Benedick's own where Beatrice is concerned. Rosalind, as part of her "cure" for Orlando's lovesickness in As You Like It, mocks the manner of Leander's death, claiming that its cause was not love but simply a swimming accident. Shakespeare's characters frequently refer to Leander's exploits as a standard measure of romantic devotion.




From Grammaticus Musaeus, [Hero and Leander], Paris, 1538.



. . . fair St. George
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons.
Richard III (5.3.371-372)

While Shakespeare's allusions to mythology are most often to classical myths, at times he drew upon non-classical myths and native folklore, calling up memories of the legendary King Arthur and such figures as St. George and Robin Hood and his merry men. King Richard, as he prepares for the battle at Bosworth Field, calls upon England's patron saint and slayer of a fierce and fiery dragon, asking for an infusion of the dragon's angry courage ("spleen") for himself and his men.




From Jacobus de Voragine, Here begynneth the legende named in latyn legenda aurea, Westminster, 1493.


Understanding Shakespeare

Visual images can illustrate not merely objects, places, or stories, but also abstract ideas and popular beliefs. The images reproduced here exemplify Shakespeare's creative use of figurative language and, in particular, of three rhetorical devices: personification, proverb, and metaphor. In personification, human attributes are ascribed to non-human creatures or inanimate objects. Proverbs distill common experience into a compact and memorable formula. And metaphor is a comparison that identifies one thing with another, dissimilar thing. All of these help explain the strange by using the familiar, challenging the reader with the power of their resonance.

Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites.
Much Ado About Nothing

The aged figure of Time, typically shown with a beard, is often depicted with wings (proverbially, "Time flies"). Here, however, the impatient Claudio refers to an opposing image of Time, suggesting that Time goes too slowly (on crutches) for those in love who eagerly anticipate the joys and pleasures of marriage.





From Francesco Petrarca, Opera, Venice, 1508.




You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
King Lear (4.7.51-54)

Those condemned to death were sometimes bound to a wheel and tortured. Here, Lear's lines seem to suggest specifically the torture of King Ixion, bound to a wheel of fire for offending Juno. Lear believes he deserves the same punishment for having acted so foolishly in disowning his youngest daughter Cordelia, who now seems to him like an angel.

From Giovanni Ferro, Teatro d'imprese, Venice, 1623. ©



The wheel is come full circle; I am here.
King Lear (5.3.209)

. . . Fortune break her wheel.
Antony and Cleopatra (4.15.52)

O Lady Fortune,
Stand you auspicious!
The Winter's Tale (4.4.59-60)

The Roman goddess Fortuna, personifying chance, distributes good and bad luck as she chooses. She is often pictured with an incessantly turning wheel, drawing a person up to a position of power and then casting him down again. The regulation of human destinies by Fortune's wheel was a popular conception even before Shakespeare's time. In King Lear, the villainous Edmund, sensing death is near, uses the image of Fortune's wheel to indicate his awareness that he is again at the bottom of the rotation, where he began as a bastard. In Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen rages against Fortune when faced with Antony's imminent death, commanding the goddess to "break her wheel" and keep Cleopatra's lover alive. In The Winter's Tale, Perdita, euphoric in her love for Florizell but anxious about the difference in their social status, invokes Fortune's aid in bringing the couple happiness.

From John Lydgate, The hystorye sege and dystruccyon of Troy, London, 1513. ©


The shape of love's Tyburn, that hangs up simplicity.
Love's Labor's Lost (4.3.52)


Tyburn was a place of execution in London. The picture shows Cupid torturing a foolish lover. Berowne uses the metaphor of the gallows to argue that love "hangs up" foolishness, mocking his three perjured friends, who have broken their vows to forgo the company of women. The picture is a vivid representation of love's pain.


From Georgius Camerarius, Emblemata amatoria, Venice, 1627.


May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?
King Lear (1.4.229-230)

Here Shakespeare draws on the proverb "To set the cart before the horse." The Fool comments on the role-reversal taking place as Lear's daughter scolds her father for misbehaving. Just as it is absurd to imagine a cart pulling a horse, the Fool implies that it is absurd for the parent to be chastised by the child.



From Edmund William Ashbee, Reprints from John Taylor's Mad Fashions, od fashions (1642), London, 1871.



If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Othello (4.1.274-275)


Once again drawing on the proverbial, Shakespeare alludes to the crocodile's supposed ability to shed false tears that would evoke sympathy from its intended victim. After verbally and physically abusing Desdemona, Othello accuses her of shedding hypocritical tears. But tragically, it is Iago who has entrapped him with false and misleading suggestions about Desdemona's fidelity.

From Jacob Typot, Symbola diuina & humana pontificum imperatorum regum, Frankfurt, 1652.


Seeing What Shakespeare Means


In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.
Much Ado About Nothing (1.1.256)

This proverbial line claims that even the person most resistant to Love's arrow will eventually succumb and bear the yoke of matrimony. Here, Don Pedro predicts that the fierce woman-hater Benedick will one day be Cupid's victim. Benedick had earlier attacked marriage by saying he would never thrust his neck into a yoke. This image of Cupid yoking an ox informs our reading of Shakespeare's language on many levels. First, it simply shows us a "yoke," an object which might be unfamiliar to modern readers. It also provides us with a visual representation of Cupid, the Roman god of love. But beyond these functions, this image helps us to visualize Shakespeare's figurative language. Not only does it show us a "savage bull" bearing a yoke, but the inclusion of Cupid suggests that this is a yoke of love or marriage. When we put together this text and this image, we can see what Shakespeare means.

From Philipp Ayres, Emblemata amatoria, London, 1683. ©




From Henry Peacham, Minerua Britanna, [1612].





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This page updated 9/12/99