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Shakespeare Scrapbooks as a means to understand ourselves

George Williams' illustrated Cymbeline sheds light on the varied representations that exist of pre-Roman Britain

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.

So far this blog series has discussed the ‘extra-illustrated’ editions of Shakespeare’s plays that are housed within the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s libraries. These editions were produced in the mid-nineteenth century by a Mr George Williams. Williams took an illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s works, chopped it up, inserted several thousand further images that he felt relevant to the texts, and rebound them as an enormous forty-three volume illustrated collection of Shakespeare’s works. The previous post in this blog series looked closely at the illustrated Antony & Cleopatra and showed how Williams used Shakespeare’s play as a medium through which to experience the exotic world of ancient Egypt. Shakespeare’s works did not only offer Williams an opportunity to indulge his interest in foreign lands, they also allowed him to explore the history of his own nation.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was popular in his own time, but largely fell out of favour with audiences during the eighteenth century. It now sits among Shakespeare’s perhaps less well known plays, largely removed from the popular imagination. The play is based on legends concerning the early Celtic King Cymbeline, the Roman Empire’s vassal King of Britain, and follows the romantic trials of his daughter, Innogen (or Imogen), who is in love with the Roman soldier Posthumus. After a series of seductions, disguises, and deceits in which Innogen and Posthumus’ love is endangered, and Cymbeline brought to the brink of war with Rome, the two lovers are reunited and war averted.

Pre-Roman Britain has always been a little fuzzy in our popular, national imagination. Modern representations of the period differ hugely in how they represent our Celtic forebears, ranging from the 1964 film Carry on Cleo, in which the Britons at the time of Caesar’s invasion are portrayed as fur-clad cavemen struggling to get their head around the invention of the wheel, to the 2018 TV series Britannia, with its ritually-scarified, psychedelic-loving Druids. Williams’ illustrated Cymbeline shows that this lack of cultural consensus is not limited to our own time. 

George Williams fashions of the Ancient Britons

Unlike his Antony & Cleopatra, which consistently - albeit rather cartoonishly - portrays ancient Egypt as a land of sphinxes, hieroglyphs, and crocodiles, Williams’ Cymbeline contains a far greater diversity of visions of Celtic Britain. In some cases, the illustrations that Williams adds roughly corresponds to how a modern academic might expect pre-Roman Britain to appear. One of Williams’ illustrations, for example, features the characteristic moustache, torque, and bare-chest that are commonly associated with the Ancient Britons.

Williams attaches this image to a discussion of the dress and fashions of the Ancient Britons in the play’s introduction. This illustration mirrors ancient representations of the Celtic peoples, such as the Hellenistic ‘Dying Gaul’ statue, which similarly includes a Torque and Moustache.

Yet, alongside such illustrations, there are also examples that follow Carry on Cleo’s model. Williams took the next illustration from Frank Howard’s 1831 The Spirit of the Plays of Shakespeare. It represents pre-Roman Britons in the style of Carry on Cleo, fur-clad, almost in the style of Stone-Age man. 

George Williams - Innogen discovered in a cave
Innogen is discovered in a cave

Williams attaches this image to act four, scene two, in which the unconscious Innogen is discovered in a cave.

Even more divergently, some of the images that Williams has included seems straight out of Arthurian legend. The below representation of Cymbeline’s court more resembles something from the High Middle Ages, with King Cymbeline being waited upon by Knightly Lords, ladies, and courtiers.

George Williams - King Cymbeline’s court
Cymbeline's court

By compiling several of the illustrated versions of Cymbeline then available to him, Williams’ edition of the play neatly calls attention to gaps and wide-ranging assumptions and uncertainties in our historical knowledge and imagination. When Cymbeline is produced for our own modern stage, we often see a fairy-tale-like world which perhaps gestures towards ancient history. Williams’ scrap-book edition of Cymbeline highlights the diverse ways in which different artists have imagined pre-Roman Britain and encourages the modern reader (and stage-practioner) to consider where they imagine this period in our national narrative. 

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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