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Using Shakespeare Scrapbooks to project our own expectations onto the ancient world

Read about how George Williams appropriated images to illustrate his imagined vision of the world of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

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 looked at the ‘extra-illustrated’ editions of Shakespeare’s complete works produced by George Williams in 1854. Taking a copy of Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspear as his basis, Williams inserted several thousand images that he felt relevant to the texts to create a forty-three volume illustrated scrapbook edition. Williams was not, however, a mere compiler of images. He edited, captioned, and modified the images to produce his own unique vision of the world arising from Shakespeare’s plays. These editions have long intrigued scholars, yet, until my own research into the presentation of the ancient world in Williams’ editions, no dedicated study has investigated the provenance and significance of the images that Williams has chosen to include.

George Williams – Antony and Cleopatra act one, scene five
The so-called 'Marc Antony'

Throughout his editions Williams is fond of using portraits and sketches, unrelated to the plays, and labelling them as characters. He includes this sketch in his Antony and Cleopatra and hand-labels it ‘Marc Antony’. The sketch was not originally of Marc Antony; it is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Bust of Man in Profile’. Williams evidently decided that the generous locks and strong nose of the sketch’s subject was close enough to his own expectations of how Marc Antony should look to make it an appropriate illustration of the character.

Williams attached this image to act one, scene five of Antony and Cleopatra.

This is not an isolated occurrence. On no fewer than 40 occasions Williams has hand-annotated an image with the name of a character from the play. On some occasions his ‘rebranding’ of images is particularly noticeable. The Alexander Mosaic, which was unearthed from Pompeii’s House of the Faun in 1831, depicts Alexander the Great’s rout of Darius III at the Battle of Issus and is arguably the most iconic representation of the two monarchs. 

George Williams - Alexander Mosaic

The modern Classicist would, then, be surprised to come across a print of part of the mosaic in act four, scene twelve of Williams’ Antony and Cleopatra. They would be even more surprised to see that Williams’ has affixed the name ‘Diomedes’ (one of Cleopatra’s attendants) beneath an image of the Persian King. As with Marc Antony and da Vinci’s ‘Bust of Man in Profile’, we must presume that Darius’ dark complexion, head-covering, and fine clothing suited Williams’ idea of how the Egyptian courtier should appear and so was appropriated into his edition.

George Williams - Diomedes and Alexander Mosaic
Williams’ illustration of Diomedes (left) and Darius from the Alexander Mosaic (right)

Williams adopts a similar flexibility to illustrations of ancient locations as well as character. To illustrate his Julius Caesar he seems to have drawn heavily on a copy of Piranesi’s Le Vedute di Roma, a collection of sketches of contemporary Rome that was produced from 1720 to 1778. At one point, Williams includes Piranesi’s sketch of the ruined palaces built by the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero and labels them ‘Caesar’s Palace’. While not necessarily inaccurate (Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero did indeed hold the title of Caesar), his caption is somewhat misleading as the buildings pictured would not be built until several years after the events of the play. It seems Williams could not find a suitably grand image of any of Julius Caesar’s residences, and so chose to co-opt the palaces of his successors.

In the production of his illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s Roman plays Williams did not passively receive and compile these images, he used them to produce a unique vision of the ancient world that they inhabited. His scrapbook editions serve almost as a pictorial historiography of his own culture’s classical tastes and interests. Shakespeare’s Roman plays are not only offering him a means to experience the ancient world, but also a medium through which to project his own expectations of how that ancient world should appear. 

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 2019 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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