Monday, July 18, 2011

"Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare" by Michael Witmore and Rosamond Purcell

Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare  uses  lines from Shakespeare plays and pairs them with photographic images. Michael Witmore, the new director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, chose the lines, and Rosamond Purcell photographed the images.

The collection has an ethereal, other-world quality, which grows primarily from the unique photographic images Purcell has created. She has taken mercury bottles and used them as reflective mirrored surfaces, from both the inside and outside.

Purcell describes herself as a photographer of "glassy things." Thus, Purcell doesn't photograph things but reflections glassy things create. This gives her art a dreamy, ethereal quality fitting of Shakespeare.

"The wavering shapes begin to evoke the fluidity  and multiple meanings found in speeches and verses of Shakespeare. Each element moves or dissolves if I shift the vantage point...These come to be the shadows of this stage," writes Purcell (116).

Simply, Purcell seeks to mirror nature in much the way Shakespeare uses mirror images: "Shakespeare uses mirrors to reflect the nature of twins or siblings, to show signs of moral corruption, beauty, self-loathing, and shame" (117).

Here's an example from the collection:

And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called 
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
---Bishop of Carlisle, Richard II, 4.1

The idea of using modern photography as a window into Shakespeare appeals to me and resonates in our image-driven culture. "Shakespeare thought in pictures," writes Witmore (7). 

Acknowledging the difficulty readers often encounter with Shakespeare's language, Witmore describes the Bards imagery as "tangles, like the riotous buds" (7). Thus, teachers and readers can approach a play as a "script within the script" (8). 

Shakespeare's imagery filled the gaps created by the Globe Theater's limitations and transported the audience beyond the Wooden O. "His language directs us to that other place where theatrical events happen: not on the stage but in the shuttered world of the imagination" (10).

Art opens the mind's eye to the pictures Shakespeare molds with words. 

I that am curtailed of this fair proportion, 
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world.
---Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, I.I

When Hamlet instructs the players he says: 

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

The "body of the time" and of our time lives through art that shapes, molds, and transforms our mind's eye and enables our vision in ways that speak to modern ways of viewing, reading, and comprehending image-driven texts. 

Landscapes of the Passing Strange looks like a coffee-table book, but I'll be giving it a prominent place in my classroom where budding artists can find inspiration. 

*Interested in more ideas about using imagery to teach Romeo and Juliet? See the Shakespeare Set Free lesson on Queen Maab's dream.   

1 comment:

  1. Inspiring work here. Love how you situate the work within your own narrative of being a teacher. I too celebrate 30 years in public ed next year. I look forward to hearing more about this work and how students find inspiration in the work.