In my last post, I described this month’s crocodile mystery as more of a rhetorical device than a question to be answered: what does this box prompt us to imagine what might be? ((All images in this post can be viewed in larger sizes through the gallery at the end.))
And what does it contain? Both a stage and a book. But it’s not just any stage and not just any book. The Globe Theatre is the setting for a miniature book that picks up on all the possibilities of staging: “Presenting the Seven Ages of Man / by Mr William Shakespeare / As Rendered Movingly by Mrs. Maryline Poole Adams.”
The Seven Ages of Man speech is a set piece that has been illustrated by countless artists. It’s the basis of the gorgeous stain-glass window that dominates the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room at the Folger, and it’s the inspiration for nineteenth-century advertising cards. It’s a lovely piece in its own right, especially when delivered by a good Jaques:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. ((Folger Shakespeare edition, 2.7.146-173))
And it can be a haunting speech, depending on the staging, when Orlando enters at the end of the speech with the old and weak Adam.
But what does it mean that this book renders it movingly? In part, it’s a pun on moving: this is a miniature moveable book, with parts that move and pages that pop-up. Adams’s depiction of the mewling and puking infant gives some sense of the babe’s arms and tongue waving:
The book is quite small, as you can tell from my fingers holding it open. The box it’s in is 9 x 7 x 4 cm; the book itself is 6.5 x 5 x 2 cm. ((The book is kept in the box, of course, and the box itself is housed in a case, both to protect it and to keep it from falling behind the other books in the vault. The case, for the curious, is 19 x 15 x 6 cm.)) The size of the book is part of what gives it its charm. The pictures contribute, as well. Here’s the sighing lover, singing to his mistress, whose eyebrows look quite skeptical:
It’s a sweet little book. But it’s the last scene that makes the book more than just sweet. Its depiction of oblivion does indeed feel “sans everything”:
But if we pull on the tab at the top of the page, we find something else:
The sudden lush color, the fantasy of wine and woman—is this mere oblivion? For me, it makes the end of the speech less bleak, less lonely. And as someone who loves books and who loves performance, I marvel at how well this book performs for us. It is movingly rendered in a way that asks us to participate in its performance (it cannot move without us) and to receive its ministrations (we are moved by it).
My post last week suggested that the power of boxes was in the tantalizing moment before we open them and find out what’s inside. I linked that desire to discover with what we sometimes feel when we do research: there’s always a gap between what we find in a catalog record and what we experience when we hold the book in our hands, between what we imagine we might find in its pages and what we discover once we start reading and looking. If this box and this book create a performance that moves us, perhaps we can think of the library—the biggest of the containers holding this work—as a place that performs and moves as well. How do libraries encourage us to open them up and discover what’s inside? What are our prompts to question what is oblivion and what is yet to be seen? How are we rendered movingly? These might be big questions to load onto a little book, but what does Shakespeare do for us, if not prompt us to wonder!