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Shakespeare Scrapbooks as a means to experience other worlds

Find out what George Williams' illustrated Antony & Cleopatra can tell us about mid-nineteenth century attitudes to the near east and the ancient Mediterranean.

Gary F. Fisher

Gary F. Fisher is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, working with the Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate for Midland 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

The previous post in this blog series introduced the ‘extra-illustrated’ editions of Shakespeare’s works that were compiled by George Williams. Williams produced these editions by chopping up a copy of Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere (1839-43), inserting several thousand further images and illustrations that he felt relevant to the texts, and rebinding them as an enormous forty-three volume illustrated collection of Shakespeare’s works. The thousands of prints, sketches, maps, and portraits that Williams includes in his illustrated editions are interesting in and of themselves, with prints and copies of several famous artists finding a place in Williams’ collection.

Taken as a whole, though, they constitute something far more interesting than the sum of their parts. Each volume in the collection functions almost as Williams’ personal scrapbook of images relating to that play. The illustrations that he has chosen to include are not only incredibly revealing of how various artists had diversely imagined different scenes, but also of how Williams personally engaged with and experienced the works of Shakespeare. 

This post looks specifically at Williams’ extra-illustrated Antony & Cleopatra to find out what Williams’ edition can tell us about mid-nineteenth century attitudes to the near east and the ancient Mediterranean. When Williams compiled his illustrated Antony & Cleopatra during the 1850s the field of Egyptology was very much in vogue. After the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and the translation of hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, the world of ancient Egypt captured the public imagination. For Williams, Antony & Cleopatra, in which Shakespeare retells the doomed romance of Rome’s Marc Antony and Ptolemaic Egypt’s Cleopatra, connects to this wider interest in Egyptology.

Costume of the nations of antiquity - George Williams
'Costume of the nations of antiquity' - George Williams

Williams has clearly undertaken to illustrate Antony & Cleopatra with more effort than he has other plays in the Shakespearian corpus. Where he has typically augmented each other play with an average of around 110 additional images, Williams has added over 150 images to his edition of Antony & Cleopatra. The images do not only illustrate the play, but the entire ancient Egyptian world. 

Alongside illustrations of specific scenes from the play, Williams has also added images of sphinxes, pyramids, hieroglyphs, exotic animals and other such images that contemporary Europeans associated with ancient Egypt. Williams introduces the play with lavish illustrations of the gods, costumes, and hairstyles of the Egyptians.

Sometimes the reasons for including these images are quite tenuous. Williams was clearly keen to include an image of the fearsome Nile crocodile, and was not willing to let the fact that crocodiles do not appear in Shakespeare’s text stop him. Act two, scene seven, in which Marc Antony regales a drunken Lepidus with a description with the landscapes and fauna of Egypt, was all the excuse that Williams needed to include a full page print of the infamous Nile crocodile.

George Williams Nile Crocodile

Williams’ extra-illustrated Antony & Cleopatra goes well beyond the remit of illustrating Shakespeare’s play; it illustrates the entire world in which it is set. He allows the reader to experience the world of ancient Egypt without ever having to leave their library.

Shakespeare’s works are not merely being celebrated for their literary accomplishments, but are being used as a gateway through which to experience other worlds.

George Williams' 'Extra-Illustrated' editions of Shakespeare will be discussed in further detail at a Research Conversation led by Gary F. Fisher that will be hosted from 5pm - 6pm on Wednesday 8 May at the Shakespeare Centre, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. The Research Conversation is free to attend and no booking is necessary.

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