Germany: monuments and memories

Germany: monuments and memories


Among the gifts I received for Christmas was Neil MacGregor’s hefty Germany: Memories of a Nation. Having listened to the radio series and visited the accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, it was a welcome one.  So far, I’ve only had time to read the opening chapter, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the text does not consist simply of a transcript of the radio scripts.

Instead, the book – though it closely follows the pattern of the thirty radio episodes – has provided MacGregor with the opportunity to extend and enhance both previous versions of the material.  It’s a handsome book, lavishly illustrated – whereas the BBC website accompanying the radio broadcasts was not. Compared to the 100 Objects website, this time the BBC did not even illustrate all thirty ‘objects’ that were the main subject of the radio episodes, let alone the many other objects, buildings, etc, to which he referred during his talks.  Moreover, the text is prefaced by some excellent maps, illustrating the shifting boundaries of the ‘German lands’ – one of MacGregor’s main themes. Continue reading “Germany: monuments and memories”

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

Germany: Memories of a Nation

Germany: Memories of a Nation

This week Neil MacGregor’s superb series for BBC Radio 4, Germany: Memories of a Nation, reaches its conclusion – fittingly timed to coincide with Germany’s Schicksalstag, or Fateful Day, the ninth of November. In our lifetime it’s the opening of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 that we all remember. But, strangely, a succession of significant events in German history have occurred on 9 November. In 1938, in the Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish property were burned and destroyed on a large scale; in 1923 it was Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, marking the early emergence of his Nazi Party on Germany’s political landscape; in Berlin on 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and two German republics were proclaimed – the social democratic one that was eventually known as the Weimar Republic, and Karl Liebknecht’s Free Socialist Republic; further back, in 1848, the year of revolutions, on 9 November Robert Blum, the democratic left liberal leader was executed by Austrian troops, leading to hopes for a united, democratic Germany being extinguished for another half century. Continue reading “Germany: Memories of a Nation”

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

Jomon pottery: potter and clay endure

As far as exhibitions go, sometimes small can be beautiful.  Last week at the British Museum to see the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I happened to wander into a side room where an exhibition consisting of just three objects was on display. Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan is a concise, yet revelatory display of three ‘flame’ and ‘water’ pots from ancient Japan.

The Museum owns one Jōmon pot (above) which was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. That pot is accompanied by two pots on loan from Nagaoka City in the Niigata prefecture in Japan.  In themselves, these objects are fascinating to look at, but the wider story they tell is one that is both interesting and significant.

The earliest pots found in Japan date from around 16,500 years ago. Pottery was not invented in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later.  The Jōmon people lived in the period between  12,500-1000 BC on the Japanese archipelago.  The term Jōmon means ‘cord-marked’ in Japanese, and is derived from the decorative markings on the pottery. The pots themselves were made for a number of reasons and are both functional and aesthetically beautiful, and open a window to mysterious culture from the distant past.

Jomon pots are the oldest pots in the world. For the first time, pots allowed people to boil foods such as nuts and shellfish to make them edible. As Neil MacGregor put it in A History of the World in 100 Objects:

It was in Japan that the world’s first pottery was born – and with it, possibly the world’s first stew. […]  The world’s pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: ‘Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure’.

The oldest Jomon pot (top) is pretty underwhelming to look at. It’s a cooking pot made about 7000 years ago –  2000 years earlier than the flame and crown pots displayed alongside it. The rim is decorated with marks incised with a stick or finger nail and the cord-markings are clearly visible. It was probably uncovered by a farmer in the 19th century and spotted by a tea master who thought it would make a fine water vessel (mizusashi) for a tea gathering. Gold leaf and lacquer was applied to the interior of the prehistoric vessel and a wooden lid was constructed with a snail decoration, alluding to the pot’s unearthing from the soil.

It’s made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about six inches high, six inches across at the top, with straight sides and a flat base, and it was made in Japan.  It was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres were pressed, so that it looks and feels like a basket made of clay.

The protrusions on the the rim of the Jomon crown pot (above) may have been inspired by the architecture of Jomon houses. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot displayed alongside. These contrasting styles seem to have been important in Jomon culture and figured also in the arrangement of buildings and burials.

This flame pot is around 5000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. It takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pottery vessels held special importance for the Jomon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth.

Jomon pots were used as cooking vessels, often sunk into the hearth to aid heat convection. Cooking was an important activity for the Jomon people and they constructed elaborate fireplaces. The hearth gave warmth and light as well as providing a social focus for the family unit. Analysis of the carbonised remains found in many of these vessels show that the pots were used to make soups and Jomon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat. Apart from cooking, Jomon ceramics were also used for pouring, serving, storage, and sometimes for burials and other rituals.

Each family group made its own ceramics. It is thought from academic studies that they were constructed by women,  though the museum’s interpretation suggests there is no concrete evidence for this yet. Jomon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the sides. Various types of cord were made from twisted plant fibres and they were used to impress different patterns on the vessel’s surface. The pots would then have been fired in wood-fed firing pits.

Jomon pottery is unique, not just because it is the oldest yet discovered, but also because they were made in a hunter-gatherer culture.  Pots are usually created by cultures only after they have made the transition from hunter-gathering
to farming, as it is very difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jomon were unique because although they foraged, hunted and fished throughout the year unusually they lived in semi-settled villages. They were able to do this because they lived in a particularly food-rich environment, as explained in this panel.

Pots enabled the Jomon to take advantage of these resources, as many of their key foodstuffs, such as acorns, were toxic unless cooked. Pots were also used to boil shellfish, forcing the shells to open and allowing access to the meat inside.

Finally, the exhibition tells how the rediscovery of the Jomon culture since the 19th century has played an important role in the evolving idea of what constitutes Japan’s cultural heritage.  Prior to the Second World War, the Jomon people were mostly viewed as a primitive aboriginal culture that was completely superseded by the arrival of rice-farming
Yayoi people from the Asian continent in around 300 BC .  This view changed significantly from the late 1940s onwards. Now many see Jomon material culture as a sophisticated artistic tradition in its own right and see  evidence for interaction between the Jomon and Yayoi populations.  More and more is being discovered about Jōmon origins and culture, and  the exhibition examines the imagery and symbolism on the pots, as well as showing how Jōmon pots have been an inspiration to modern Japanese culture – with references in music, manga, modern art.

As an example of this, music inspired by Jomon culture was played by Yamagami Susumu, who performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument).

See also

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC
William Shakespeare: attributed to John Taylor

Recently, across BBC radio and television, there’s been a season of excellent programmes dedicated to Shakespeare.  Best of all was  Neil MacGregor following up his 100 Objects with Shakespeare’s Restless World, 20 programmes that explored the world of Shakespeare through twenty objects from that turbulent period.  On BBC4 James Shapiro re-examined the work of Shakespeare during King James I’s reign in an excellent short series, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History, while back on Radio 3 The Essay featured five essays about love in the work of Shakespeare.


Drake's circumnavigation medal
Drake’s circumnavigation medal

This is Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal, a small silver medal showing Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 voyage around the world. It was created in 1589, around the time that Shakespeare began his theatrical career in London. Neil MacGregor chose this as the first object of his series in order to illustrate how Shakespeare’s generation was the first to conceive of a world whose limits were known. Suddenly, the world looked like a very different place. The 1580s and 1590s saw English figures joining the great adventure of exploration, exploitation, trading and looting that marked the European age of discovery – bringing with it exotic goods and even more exotic tales that would fire the public imagination.

Oberon: ‘We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.96-7)

Puck: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.175-6)

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacGregor , pointed out, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his mischievous attendant Puck boast that they can circumnavigate the globe in just over half an hour. It took Francis Drake nearly three years.But it was not really until this period that people could have had a real visual sense of the whole world, and in particular the roundness of the world.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

In a series of brilliant essays, MacGregor evoked a powerful sense of Shakespeare’s times through objects such as the Stratford Chalice (above), from which Shakespeare may even have drunk (chosen to reflect the changing religious landscape of Elizabethan England), a theatre-goers fork excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s south bank, and a Plague proclamation from King James I issued in 1603 , the year that a fresh epidemic swept through London forcing the theatres to close for almost a year and leaving Shakespeare’s company little choice but to head out on the road to tour the provinces.

Battle Gear of Henry V

In one essay, MacGregor’s starting point was Henry V’s battle gear, which can be seen the museum at Westminster Abbey.  In Shakespeare’s day, he said, there were two easy ways to learn about national history: you could go to the theatre and see England’s famous victories chronicled in performance; or you could head to Westminster Abbey where in amongst the royal tombs you could be instructed on the ‘living monuments’ of dead kings.  If you did either, it’s probable that one monarch’s heroic deeds would have stood out above all others – those of England’s valiant, dashing, and heroic ‘warrior king’ Henry V.  In the 1590s, as England headed for war with Spain 150 years after Henry’s death, spectacular chivalric displays at Westminster and performances on stage across the river, harked back to this powerful king who personified the ability to unite Englishmen against the enemy.

It was the same for the generation that lived through the Second World war: Laurence Olivier’s film version depicted a handsome and valiant Englishman taking his people onward into battle.

King Henry: In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;

(Henry V, 3.1.3-8)

In Westminster Abbey we can still see Henry V’s  battered shield and sword, sturdy helmet and saddle for a war horse.  The reason these instruments of battle are in the Abbey, MacGregor said, is because for centuries they were put on public display, hung over Henry V’s tomb.

Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum
Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum

One of the programmes, ‘New Science, Old Magic’, told the fascinating story of how, in 1608, after acquiring a second indoor playhouse to complement the Globe, Shakespeare’s company were able to begin to deploy magical effects in stage performances such as The Tempest.  Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explained the impact:

When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that’s a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe’s stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.’

Indoors at Blackfriars, stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication in The Tempest, employing effects developed by Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan celebrity and  famous practitioner of the occult arts who inspired great theatrical characters such as Marlowe’s damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s own master of magical effects, Prospero.  Dr Dee was particularly known in England for what he called his ‘showstones’, reflective mirrors in which, combining prayer and optics, he was able to conjure and talk to angels.

One of Dee’s mirrors is in the British Museum (above). It’s a large round disc of highly polished obsidian, a black volcanic glass.  It was almost certainly a piece of Spanish booty from Mexico, and is in fact an Aztec mirror, painstakingly crafted in Mexico some time before the Spanish arrived. It was shaped with stone tools and we now know, although Dr Dee probably didn’t, that the high polish was achieved by long rubbing with bat excrement. Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. ‘When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico’, said MacGregor, ‘this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few’.

The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar
The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar

The series concluded with a superb example of MacGregor’s scholarship and humanitarian sensibility.  In his final essay, Shakespeare Goes Global, he explored how Shakespeare’s words have circled the Earth in the centuries since the publication, by a group of friends a decade after his death, of the First Folio which preserved Shakespeare’s plays for future generations.  I thought this episode so powerful that I’ll quote extended passages here:

On 22 July 1942, the German SS announced that all the Jews in Warsaw would, in the euphemism of the day, be ‘resettled’ to the camp at Treblinka. It was effectively a death sentence:

‘There were however six groups of people who were to be exempted from the resettlement. These included all able-bodied Jews of working age, all persons employed by German public authorities or in German production facilities or those who were on the staff of the Judenrat and the Jewish hospitals. One sentence suddenly set me thinking; the wives and children of the people in these categories were not to be resettled either.’

The 22-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of those exemptions. Now over 90 years old and Germany’s leading literary critic, he told his story to the German Parliament in January 2012. A German-Polish Jew, he was working for the Judenrat, the Council of Jews set up by the Nazis. He had no wife or children, but he was engaged, and he realised that, if he acted straight away, he could prevent his fiancee from being ‘resettled’. He must marry her at once:

‘The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the rush and excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don’t know. But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days. And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: ‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’

‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’: ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed?’ It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III and it’s an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment. At this time of extreme need, the only words Marcel Reich-Ranicki found were Shakespeare’s. […]

In this final programme I want to look at the many things that Shakespeare’s plays have come to mean to the whole world. For hundreds of years, people like Marcel Reich-Ranicki have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings. How has this supremely public writer become the private companion of so many, his words the stuff that their hopes, fears and dreams are made on? How did this very English playwright go global?

Well the answer, I think, is here in the British Library, and it’s in this book that I’ve got in front of me: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – often referred to simply as the ‘First Folio’. … The first folio was advertised for the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1622, six years after Shakespeare had died, but as often happens, the publishers ran a bit late and it appeared only in 1623. Now, it was rare for plays in English by a single author to be gathered and published like this. That tribute was usually reserved for the great writers in Latin. But with this book, people everywhere, people who had never seen Shakespeare played in the theatre, could make his works part of their lives. And from the beginning, we know that they did.

The First Folio allowed Shakespeare to travel out of the theatre and into the world. The copy I’m looking at now belonged to William Johnstoune, who lived in Dumfriesshire in Scotland.  […]

Johnstoune’s copy of the First Folio is now in Meisei University in Tokyo. But I am studying it in a cafe in London on my smartphone. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck puts a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. In the world of modern magic, online Shakespeare circles the globe instantly.

And on every circling the words mean something new. In 2012, the very new state of South Sudan found echoes of its post-conflict recovery in an officially sponsored production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. […]

Memorably [Shakespeare] was there on Robben Island, the infamous South African jail, where in the 1970s, leaders of the African National Congress were imprisoned during the struggle against apartheid. Sonny Venkatratham was one of them:

‘When I got to Robben Island we had no access to a library or any other reading material. I applied to buy some books and the reply came that I am allowed only one book. Eventually I decided the only book that would keep me going for some time would be the Complete Works of Shakespeare – well I knew they wouldn’t allow me to have the Das Kapital or something.’

In order to keep his Shakespeare with him in his cell, Sonny Venkatratham disguised it by sticking Hindu cards sent to him for Diwali over the covers. The Robben Island ‘Bible’ is now part of the legend of the battle against apartheid:

‘About six months before my due release date, I circulated The Complete Works of Shakespeare and asked my comrades there to select a line or a passage that appealed to them and sign it. All of them chose lines or passages that inspired them and strengthened the resolve for the struggle.’

On the 16 December 1977, the disguised Robben Island Bible reached Nelson Mandela. He signed his name beside this passage on courage and death from Julius Caesar:

Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

(Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7)

The same passage had moved William Johnstoune in Scotland 350 years earlier: ‘Death a necessarie end will come when it will come and is not to be forefeared’.  The prisoner Walter Sisulu, pondering racial injustice in South Africa, fascinatingly does not choose as his passage words chosen by Othello, the Moor of Venice, and victim of many racist slurs. He chooses instead the Venetian Jew, Shylock:

Shylock: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
. . .
Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog

(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.108-25)

Imagining Sisulu reading these lines, is to imagine Shakespeare conjuring the humiliations of apartheid South Africa. The Robben Island Bible, like the First Folio, allows everyone to see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament and, in the Warsaw ghetto or in a South African prison, Shakespeare speaks to the unsettled condition of our time. In the First Folio, his contemporary Ben Jonson described him as the ‘soul of the age’, but also as ‘not of an age, but for all time’. Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate:

‘I think the key to Shakespeare’s endurance, and the fact that in every culture and every age he seemed to speak to the present, comes from that paradox. On the one hand he was the ‘soul of the age’, all the great conflicts and innovations of the age, the sense of the discovery of new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, it all is there in Shakespeare. He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he never confined himself to the particularities of his historical moment and that meant that because he sort of plugged in to the fundamental questions about human society and human life, he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.’

James Shapiro

I’ve been an admirer of James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University , since reading 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare and another of his books, Shakespeare and the Jews.  In the Shakespeare Unlocked season he presented a three-part series about Shakespeare in the reign of King James, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History. It proved to be fascinating stuff, with revealing insights into the background that informed plays such as Macbeth, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear.

Shapiro began by sketching in the anxious mood of 1603 when the Scottish king succeeded to the English  throne. Puritans, plague, an extravagant gift to a Spanish diplomatic delegation, and a new British coin called the Unite all featured in Shapiro’s rich and fascinating history of a troubled time which saw an extraordinary creative outpouring.  Shapiro’s main purpose was to relate Shakespeare’s late plays to the politics and the tensions of the Jacobean period, much as he did for later Elizabethan England in his book 1599. He pointed out that  the theatre was of tremendous significance in Jacobean London: in a city of just 200,000 people, there were eight theatres. There would need to be 300 for an equivalent ratio today.

What Shapiro (and MacGregor, too) made clear was just how much the death of Elizabeth was a political chasm that opened at the feet of the age. Shapiro emphasised what an enormous change it represented for Shakespeare in particular.  As he said, we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright who simply progressed from triumph to triumph. But James’s accession endangered that progress. Shapiro, drew attention to the difference between Hamlet (1600) and Measure for Measure (1604):

The distance he travelled… suddenly you have this play of incredible ambiguity and disturbing resolution that has come out of a different world … I am struggling as a cultural historian to understand this moment.

Measure for Measure was not the first Shakespeare play to be presented before the new king, but was likely the first to be written in his reign. James hated crowds and was awkward with people: he was far happier in a library or on a hunting field than playing the part of a king. Or, as the Duke puts it, ‘I love the people but do not like to stage me to their eyes’. In addition, Measure for Measure addresses the exact same issues of good governance, of pragmatism versus piety that were preoccupying James at the start of his reign.

In Macbeth, written in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot when the authorities were cracking down on Catholics, Shakespeare  captured the anxiety and obsessions of the time. Shapiro drew out the links between Macbeth, especially the famous and chilling Porter’s speech, and the Gunpowder Plot.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were 
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the 
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, 
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d 
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! 
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. 
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other 
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could 
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com- 
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could 
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

The Porter, he points out, uses the word ‘equivocate’ once and ‘equivocator’ twice. The Catholic priest Henry Garnet, executed for complicity in the plot, had written A Treatise of Equivocation instructing Catholics in how to conceal their faith. Concealment, secrecy and ‘equivocation’ were words that signified the fears of the age.

Romeo and Juliet

The Essay on Radio 3 marked the season with a week of essays about love in the work of Shakespeare. Margaret Drabble explores how our concepts of love and humanity have been deepened by the power of Shakespeare’s poetry and how his many and varied versions of love continue to shape our imaginations: from the first love and love at first sight shared by the teenage Romeo and Juliet to the all consuming last love of the ageing Antony and Cleopatra.

Other essays were given by Stanley Wells – who suggested that, though Shakespeare’s work is not generally considered to be autobiographical, there is good reason to believe his varying portrayals of love and romance may reflect the changing nature of Shakespeare’s own experiences – and by the actor and director Samuel West, who explored the many and varied portrayals of love in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Professor Helen Hackett examined in some depth the love sonnet spoken by Romeo and Juliet and how, like so many of his poems, it creates a moment of extreme unreality. Time stands still as the protagonists pour out their hearts in what is effectively a sonnet whose lines are handed back and forth between the two lovers, a sonnet that takes us beyond poetic convention and beyond realism to tell the truth about love:

Romeo [To Juliet]: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rome: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.  [Kisses her.]
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Rome: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.  [Kisses her.]

The final essay was in some ways the most interesting, related as it was to Neil MacGregor’s final essay. In it, the writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recalled how her own heart was captured by Shakespeare as a child growing up in Uganda, East Africa, where his plays were performed at her school on a regular basis. She told her own astonishing story, a tragic variant on Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love between families divided by hatred and prejudice.  After playing Juliet to a black African Romeo, scandal followed and her father never spoke to her again until he died.  Alibhai-Brown recalled the experience in article for the Independent:

I am forever grateful that some of my teachers were brave enough to instil in us ideas which were inimical to those held by our parents and communities. That they took on their more conventional colleagues, broke rules, took risks and made us into questioning little upstarts and worthy rebels instead of a generation of little obedients. Our poor old British teachers today would never be allowed to get away with such subversive behaviour.

Mrs Mann, my English teacher is the true heroine of the one-woman show I have been performing as part of the RSC’s new work programme based on my life as a young girl in Uganda and my love of Shakespeare. Mrs Mann came into our predominantly Asian school (with a minority of black pupils) and shook things up by producing Romeo and Juliet with Asians playing the Capulets and Africans playing the Montagues. I was Juliet. Shame and scandal followed and my father never spoke to me again until he died.

Africans in the early Sixties had grown to despise us, even the massive good we did. Asians thought of Africans as inferior beings. After independence we had to make a different country. Mrs Mann made us break from those deep prejudices. She came to the show in London on the final night and I publicly told her that whatever had happened within my family, she was right to do what she did.  I often talk to pupils in schools and am increasingly appalled at how poor they are at challenging each other’s ideas, how they reproduce the prejudices of their parents and tribes, how unfree they are.

In her radio essay, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued that, though Shakespeare may never have left England, he had a global outlook on love.  ‘He wrote so perceptively and eloquently about cross-cultural and interracial relationships that no playwright since has ever come near’, she said. From Titus Andronicus and the Merchant of Venice to Othello, the plays are full of rebellious lovers, mixed race couplings whose complex lives are portrayed with such moral clarity and moral ambivalence that they resonate today.

Note: The painting of William Shakespeare at the head of this post is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. The portrait is known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ after a previous owner. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. In June, this and other portraits from the NPG will be available to view online when  a further 21,000 paintings will be added to the excellent Your Paintings website.

See also