Oxford’s Bodleian Library is currently commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with an exhibition comprising treasures from its holdings in early modern books. There is the occasional painting and piece of jewellery, but unsurprisingly for a library, most of the artefacts are bibliographic. It is a small but terrific show, the overwhelming effect of which is to underline the imminence of death in an age before epidemiology, pathology or just basic hygiene. As if medical ignorance weren’t bad enough, there are documents demonstrating the gross (in both senses) annihilation brought about by war and contemporary accounts of London plagues that put the mortality rate in excess of 60 per cent.
This book, which accompanies the exhibition, is beautifully produced, and contains 70 plates, most of which are full-page. Perhaps the most moving of these, and the one most symptomatic of the individuation of early modern death, comes from Giacomo Filippo Tomasini’s Gymnasum Patavinum (1654).
It pictures a corpse on a table at the centre of an empty anatomy theatre. The cadaver is naked, dwarfed by the scale of its tiered surroundings, and, as the focal point of the engraving, the vulnerable object of the reader’s gaze. But two features of the image serve to intensify the body’s isolation. The rows of banisters over which we might expect to see the craned necks of inquisitive quacks are completely empty: the corpse seems forlorn, forsaken. Contrast this with the frenetic crowds peering over each other on the title page (reproduced elsewhere in the catalogue) of Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543). Second, as the catalogue’s caption points out, there is no “religious accompaniment”. This death is secular and, as the period abandons the comforting certitudes of religious faith along with the sensational corruption of the decaying corpse, death’s enormity is attenuated and its bland proximity becomes its most shocking characteristic. The disarming straightforwardness of death’s presence makes the Duke’s description of it (in Measure for Measure) all the more paradoxically vital: “an after-dinner’s sleep”.
A catalogue rather than an academic monograph, this book’s contents are descriptive rather than conceptual. Nevertheless there are compelling discussions of the rhetoric of battle with an especially effective skewering of Henry V’s hypocrisy: the roll call of the dead after Agincourt “apparently omits any of that ‘band of brothers’ he addressed so movingly before the charge”. More unsettling is what the authors describe as the “queasy enjoyment of child murder” – each to his own, I suppose.
Stylistically, the copy is a curate’s egg. Sometimes it is spot on and refreshingly casual – Ragozine’s severed head is brought on in Claudio’s place “in a jiffy” in Measure for Measure, while in Love’s Labour’s Lost Navarre is sequestered “in academic isolation with his mates”.
Elsewhere the prose is less user-friendly: “Dromio evokes a place of terrifying un-freedom”; “The mixture of anonymous multitudes and individual panic equally characterizes sperm and battle.” There are also some glaring errors. Christ’s co-crucifixees were thieves not murderers; those who fail to select the correct casket (in The Merchant of Venice) are not “dicing with death” but merely condemned to unmarried life; Desdemona’s murder is not “self-annihilation” and Gertrude’s “long purples” are sheep’s bollocks not penises. Then again, what price pedantry when, having read this review, you are five minutes closer to the grave?
Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association.
By Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith
Bodleian Library, 192pp, £19.99
Published 22 April 2016