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Very Like a Whale

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Audio Tour Transcript

# 50. Welcome to Very Like a Whale, with Michael Witmore


Hello.   I’m Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and co-curator of this exhibition Very Like a Whale.  The title comes from a scene in the play Hamlet in which prince Hamlet is watching the clouds and seeing different shapes. In Very Like a Whale you will see objects, books, photographs, and artifacts that we hope will spark your imagination in the same way.


#51. Shadows and Mirrors


One of the phrases we kept repeating as we were assembling this exhibition was “seeing things for what else they are.”  In this case you can see shadows and mirrors, both of which change the way things look, and in some cases, radically distort those things so that they start to look like something else. All of these things in this case are here to help us understand that something may appear one way, but that either technology or our angle of viewing or even our imagination, can distort those things and make them seem like something else.


#52.   All the Whale’s a Stage


The title of our exhibit Very Like a Whale and so many things can be very like a whale.  This case is dedicated to the idea that the whale could be a stage and could be a stage for something of than people just hunting it, killing it, and eating it.  It could be a stage for the curious citizens of a Belgian town to climb up on when it was beached and they didn’t understand what this monster was doing on the shore.  They wanted to know what its ribbed back was like, was it like a field, and certain intrepid citizens climbed up on its back and walked across it as though it was a field and the monks more tentative at the end put a cautious foot or two on it.  Then there are people actually in the mouth of the whale looking around.  This was a monster of the deep that had suddenly presented itself into the world of men.


#53. To One Thing Constant Never


This case is about change and variability in the affairs of human beings and in nature.   The goddess Fortuna is the embodiment of the Renaissance idea of change.  And if you look in the upper right hand side of the case, you’ll see an emblem which communicates Fortune’s features to people using a picture.  I love this picture because it shows Fortuna balancing on a sphere.  And the reason why she balances on a sphere is that she is able to react quickly to any changes in the world, and she’s even a source of changes in the world.  This particular case shows all forms of changeability, including the way people’s desires change because they’re fickle and the way forms change.         


#54.   Kircher’s Projections


If you look to the upper right of this case you’ll see an image of a text by Athanasius Kircher, who was a Jesuit polymath from the 17th century very interested in machines and marbles.  This particular machine that you see in the picture is of interest to Shakespearians because it shows a device that allows an animal’s head to be projected on to the body of a human being.  If you look at the small dial, to the lower right, you’ll notice that one of the animal heads that can be projected into that mirror is one of a donkey.  When we saw this machine that can put a donkey’s head when thought about Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  We also thought about what this picture would look like if it were turned into a space and that’s what led us to approach Eric Stepp, the sculptor, who has built a 3-dimentional version of this 2-dimentional space.


#55. The Wars to Come


One of the things that we wanted to communicate in this case about war is the way in which it can transform human beings into animals, or transform animals into instruments of human desires and intentions.   You can see a war machine in the upper right which has all of the armor that we would associate with an animal, you can also see animals that have been turned into weapons, like the cat that has a rocket or a bomb strapped to it, in the lower right. 


#56. Bad Behavior


Shakespeare’s plays are full of bad behavior.  One of the items in this particular case, the three puppets coming out of their boxes, remind us of a scene from one of Shakespeare’s late plays entitled Cymbeline.  In this play there’s a plot to make a husband, Cymbeline, jealous thinking that his wife is cheating on another man.  A character named Iachimo enters Imogen’s bedroom at night but he does so hidden in a chest.  And when the evening comes he comes out of his chest and spies on Imogen seeing a birthmark that he then reports to Cymbeline in order to make him jealous.  This makes Iachimo a kind of jack-in-the-box and this was an association we thought would be very powerful when paired with these somewhat frightening and leering puppets.


#57. Awake Your Faith


You’re looking at an early modern robot.   This mechanical monk was created in the 16th century and its actions, when wound up, simulate the actions of a real person.  We’ve paired it with a portrait of Hermione, the statue that comes to life at the end of The Winter’s Tale.  Both of these go together because both of these show life coming from something that is not alive.  In the case of Shakespeare’s play, a statue comes to life; in the case of the automaton, a machine has lively motion just like a real person. 


#58. A Theater Burns


You’re looking at illuminated images of fire in the theater.   Theater is a live art form and that means that whenever actors take the stage in front of a live audience one never knows what’s going to happen.  This was certainly the case in a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, at the Globe Theater in London early in the 17th century.  During this performance an explosive set fire to the thatched roof of this theater and burned it to the ground.  Famous fires like this remind us that theaters are a place of unexpected events, wonders, but also of dangers. 


#59. Art That Nature Makes


One of the major themes of this exhibit is the ways in which artists and nature both produce things that are very beautiful and that have shapes and forms.   In this case you can see many items that were produced by nature - an agate that looks like a volcano, or some rivers stones that look sculptural - and that help remind us that, at least in the Renaissance, the art that nature employs was seen to be similar to the one that human beings used.  This was a theme that was taken up in wonder cabinets and other collections in the period and its one that we can see both in objects and in pictures from books from this period. 


#60. Poison and Antidote


There are three beautiful bottles here in this case.   They are apothecary jars from Italy and they once contained different drugs that would be used for curative purposes.  It connects us with a scene in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo arrives in an apothecary store and there’s a beautiful description of things that he sees.  We like these jars because they are very much like the things in the world that Romeo would have actually seen. 


#61. The Book of Nature


In the case on Caliban we’ve included many items from the nature world.   One of the things that is distinctive of Caliban is his mastery of nature and the natural processes on the island.  This made us think about Caliban as a kind of natural historian, someone who pays attention to nature and knows its secrets.  This idea connects to another idea in the Renaissance which was that nature itself is a kind of book and it’s filled with secrets and wisdom.  Only certain people, however, can read that book.  So this makes a nice parallel with Prospero, who literally consults books and lives in them.  Caliban consults the book of nature and is its greatest authority. 


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