The making of A Shakespeare Motley (Part 2)

Posted by Sarah Wilmott on

In the second instalment of our blog about A Shakespeare Motley, Emma Mulveagh and Adam Sherratt discuss some of the illustrations that excited and inspired them in the creation of the book.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on the book was all of the picture research and the opportunity to look through so many of the books in our collections. The tiniest of books revealed beautifully decorative borders and motifs, and the frontispieces in larger volumes were brimming with detail. Established favourites that we had turned to before revealed new surprises and books that were relatively unexplored, and never before photographed, yielded some wonderful discoveries. Beautiful, comical, stylish, characterful, gruesome, striking, intriguing and revealing, the images we found not only shaped how we thought about illustrating the book’s entries but in some cases helped to inspire them.

A Shakespeare Motley

The charming picture of a well-dressed, older man holding his gloves, taken from John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis (1653), was perfect for illustrating the entry on Gloves and for capturing John Shakespeare’s profession as whittawer. Similarly, Shakespeare’s already evocative description of a horse in the poem Venus & Adonis really came to life when we found the image of a horse in Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts (1658) complete with ‘thin mane, thick tail’. The disturbing image of a man being blinded in A Generall Martyrologie (1651) brought home the horror of the Earl of Gloucester’s fate, mentioned in the entry for Eye, and the tiny figures flailing in the water in John Norden’s The View of London Bridge from East to Weste (1597) really captured the perils of seafaring and the risk of a watery grave, and partly inspired the entry on Drowning.

In the same illustration we were surprised by the tiny, grimacing faces and heads displayed on pikes above the gate. Seen in full, the image is dominated by the river and the architecture of the bridge, but the macabre detail is there, tucked away in the top left corner, a sobering reminder of the penalties for treason in Shakespeare’s time.

It was often these small, obscure visual details that seemed to resonate strongest with our research for the written entries. Among many others, a startling and favourite discovery was the frontispiece in A Medicinal Dispensatory, a French book that was translated, revised and appeared in England in 1657. The research for the entry on Apothecary had led us to Romeo’s description of the apothecary in Act 5 of Romeo & Juliet, where he also describes the seeds, flowers, skins and poisons in the apothecary’s shop. To our delight, here in the bottom left of the frontispiece was such a shop, with boxes, bottles, utensils and even ‘an alligator stuffed’ hanging from the ceiling. This remarkable engraving is celebrated with a full-page illustration in the book.

Similarly, we were thrilled to find the illustrations of unicorns in the first volume of Historiae Naturalis by Joannes Jonstonus (1653). Here were three very expressive creatures, quite different to the depiction of the unicorn in Topsell’s Four-Footed Beasts, but also, in the background, a hunting scene in which one of the hunters appears to be dressed ‘in the apparel of a young woman’ in order to lure the unicorn. Topsell reports this very method in his own account of the creature.

A Shakespeare Motley

A Shakespeare Motley

Bringing these small visual details to the fore was an important element in developing the book’s unique offer. It was partly about being creative and inventive with the source materials, but where the images that we found connected very specifically to a subject these often gave a visual focus to the entry and a more interesting, original angle to the text.

One example is the entry on Time. There is so much we could have written on the subject in relation to Shakespeare but it was the detail of Sir John Harington’s exquisite pocket watch, complete with its key, from his frontispiece portrait in Orlando Furioso (1634), that led us to think about Malvolio dreaming of winding up his watch. Similarly, an hourglass from George Wither's Book of Emblemes (1635) perfectly embodied the ‘sickle glass’ of sonnet 126 and Shakespeare’s symbolic representation of time, and the wonderful Strasbourg Clock with all its splendid automata, as depicted in Coryat’s Crudites (1611), chimed perfectly with Richard II's image of the ‘jack of the clock.’

Another frontispiece portrait, of William Dugdale in The Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), included the wonderful detail of an inkwell with pens and a pen knife, the perfect illustration for the entry in Ink. On the facing page, however, we also included a reproduction of a page from Gerard’s Herball (1597) featuring oak galls ‐ a less obvious connection, but gall was one of the key ingredients of ink in Shakespeare’s time. The entry explores briefly how ink was made, but hopefully it will also encourage readers, as it did us, to think about the legacy of Shakespeare’s words and how they came to be created in the simple act of putting pen to paper.

A Shakespeare Motley

These personal resonances and responses to the material were a rewarding part of our research. The striking image we used to illustrate the entry for Twins, two figures closely linked together in the womb from The Birth of Mankinde (1604), became poignant when we considered not only Shakespeare’s use of twins in his plays but also that he was a father to twins and that one of them, Hamnet, died in childhood. Likewise, the title page of James I’s Orders for the Plague (1603), included in the entry on Plague, threw into sharp relief the subtle, tragic consequences of quarantine in Romeo & Juliet and served to remind us of an earlier outbreak of plague in 1592, ‘the dangerous year’ that Shakespeare alludes to in Venus & Adonis.

A Shakespeare Motley was published in the autumn of our own ‘dangerous year’, meaning we were unable to launch the book as we had planned. We had originally intended to create an online exhibition to complement the book and to develop a range of products inspired by the illustrations (more of which in a future post). For now, we hope that readers will enjoy making their own discoveries and connections and be encouraged to unpack the contents of the book for themselves by seeking out the original sources for the illustrations in our online catalogue.


Copies of A Shakespeare Motley are available in the Shakespeare Bookshop or online.



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