Shakespeare in an Age of Visual Culture  
   
VISUALIZING THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF SHAKESPEARE'S LONDON
Juana Green

As early modern Londoners shopped the city's markets, walked Goldsmith's Row, and strolled the galleries of the Exchanges, they could behold—and possibly buy—a world of goods. One contemporary cartographer, John Speed, praised London when calling it "the mart of the world," explaining "for thither are brought the silk of Asia, the spices from Africa, the Balmes from Grecia, & the riches of both the Indies East and West" (The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, 1611, sig. H2r). Of course not all goods on display were imported, nor were all commentators as enthusiastic as Speed about London as a site for conspicuous consumption; yet, early modern London was undeniably a "mart" in which merchandise of all costs and types was on view to passers-by. Although this material world of goods does not fit neatly into the categories scrutinized in the seminar, it was an important part of the visual culture of life in Shakespeare's London. In my presentation, I explained how my project examines the relationship between the things of everyday life available for sale in London and the objects so often mentioned or staged within the genre of city comedy, a genre popular on the London stage in the opening decades of the seventeenth century.

Attempting to account for the genre's investment in the things of everyday life, I draw upon the work of anthropologists and historians regarding the social functions of objects so that I can demonstrate the ways objects embody desire and how city comedies attempt to control desire through the control of property. In charting the movement of a chosen object from the home or market to the stage, I ground the object within the material culture of early modern England, examining such things as where it was produced, how much it cost, who owned such objects, and how it may have been used. Recreating the historical lives of stage objects enables us to re-see them through an (admittedly constructed) early modern lens, thus opening new possibilities for interpreting plays. In Ben Jonson's Epicoene, to give but one example, animal-shaped carousing cups are used to stage the contested gender relations in the middle-class Otter household. Captain Otter's bull, bear, and horse drinking vessels, which initially seem like an imaginative comic device by which to characterize the former bear warden, take on new meanings when we discover that these German-manufactured vessels were quite costly and highly fashionable at court. And Mistress Otter, who made her fortune selling such imported goods, appears to be a stereotypical shrew until we consider that her claims to the cups can be substantiated legally under provisions in England's property laws that protected women's rights in property. Focusing on the cups not merely as symbols but as everyday things exposes the ways in which Epicoene dramatizes that a married woman's right in property complicated the calculus of gender relations in early modern England. Moreover, focusing on the cups clarifies the ideological work performed in the play by the Otter narrative, one which has been largely neglected by the play's critics.

Visualizing the material culture of Shakespeare's London in today's classrooms requires access to the objects held in museum collections. To date, images of the carousing cups, embroidered hankies, fashionable clothing, and foodstuffs that have formed the basis of my research exist primarily in print sources. However, museums and libraries have begun to digitize their collections; once in place, electronic resources will facilitate our students' abilities to visualize the material culture which helped shape the cultural concerns represented in the early modern texts we teach.


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Othello After O.J.: A Photo Negative Image
Sharing Shakespeare: An Academic's Adventures with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

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