Very Like a Whale

Jump to: navigation, search
A whale in Nomenclator aquatilium animatum, 1560. Folger Digital Image 62800.

Very Like a Whale, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened October 16, 2012 and closed January 6, 2013. The exhibition takes its name from Hamlet's quickly changing descriptions of a cloud's shape as a camel, a weasel, and, finally, a whale—claims that are met each time with hearty agreement from Polonius.

Jointly curated by Folger Director Michael Witmore and photographer Rosamond Purcell, the exhibition explores the richness and variety of Shakespeare's visual language through Purcell's photographs and a wealth of rare books, manuscripts, prints, and natural objects. Along the way, it presents a sprawling landscape of ideas and images, from mirrors, magic, and optical illusions to uncanny animals, twists of fate, and the ugly transformations of war.


This exhibition was curated by Rosamond Purcell and Michael Witmore.

Rosamond Purcell is an internationally acclaimed artist and photographer. Solo exhibitions of her work include the traveling installation Two Rooms (a reconstruction of Purcell's studio) originating at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Other work includes A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science. She is also author of numerous books, including Landscapes of the Passing Strange (2010, with Michael Witmore), Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things (2003), and Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters (1997).

Michael Witmore, a scholar of Shakespeare and early modern literature as well as a pioneer in the digital analysis of Shakespeare’s texts, is Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Prior to that, he was a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he directed the Working Group for Digital Inquiry, a group of humanists who use computers to assist in traditional humanities research. Witmore is also the author of Shakespearean Metaphysics (2008); Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance (2007); Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England (2001), as well as numerous articles and book chapters.

Curators' insights

For photographer Rosamond Purcell and Folger Director Michael Witmore, their book Landscapes of the Passing Strange (2010) and the exhibition Very Like a Whale are two parts of the same wide-ranging project, an ambitious combination of contemporary photography, Shakespeare's highly visual language, and the powerful world of the Renaissance imagination. As the curators explain, the book and exhibition were conceived together.

"The idea of doing an exhibition and the book came at the same time; one didn't grow out of the other," Witmore says. "It turned out to work well to do the book first. It became an expanding circle, expanding out from the pictures and text in the book, to all sorts of associations with materials in the Folger collection and elsewhere." The fact that the book was done first, Purcell adds, "is really lucky. The pictures became a steadying force in my mind, as we were working to draw out themes and topics" for the exhibition.

When Witmore first suggested a photographic Shakespeare project, "I was very hesitant," says Purcell. "I didn't want something too literal. I wanted something that was more of a glancing blow, more oblique or suggestive. Then I saw a mercury glass jar in the window of an antique store. It had a double reflective surface—the inner surface, which was like a corroded mirror, and the outer surface, which was often rippled glass. On its side, the reflections were even more askew, warped, and mysterious." She sent photographs of landscapes reflected on the jar's surfaces to Witmore, who was then a visiting scholar at the Folger Institute.

He opened her first e-mail in the Folger Reading Room. "Once I saw Rosamond's mercury glass experiments," says Witmore, he knew "this was the right opportunity." In the following weeks, she took more and more photographs. As she emailed him new images, Witmore quickly replied with the lines from Shakespeare they evoked. "It was like a call and response," says Purcell.

"My reaction to these images is immediately emotional, a set of overtones and feelings," says Witmore. "I look at it and I think, I've had that feeling before." The photograph "Awake Your Faith", for example, suggests the scene in The Winter's Tale in which a statue comes to life. "That is probably my favorite moment in the plays," says Witmore. "A very hopeful moment, a triumph of hope over experience—buoyancy, life, and longing. I have the same feelings on the stage and in the image for that moment."

In the exhibition, Purcell's photographs are complemented by display cases on related themes, filled with diverse early modern books, prints, and manuscripts, natural and found objects, and more. "The exhibition cases are like small collections," Witmore says. "I hope that the people who visit the exhibition think aloud about how the things came together and take away a deeper appreciation for just how visually rich Shakespeare's language is. He's good not only with images, but with connections between images. He's always looking at one thing and seeing another."

For her part, Purcell hopes that visitors will take a close look. "We've chosen everything in the cases to be great for the eye as well as the mind. There are so many compelling illustrations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books on travel, on early modern science, on magic. And I have enormous fondness for many of the objects, too—the narwhal tusk, which is amazing, the amphora covered with tubeworm cases, the hematite shaped like a bird's wing. Then, too, things are not always as they seem. Don't stand a mile away, come right on in and look," she says. "Just looking is a reward."

Contents of the exhibition

Very Like a Whale exhibition material

This article offers a comprehensive list of each piece included in the exhibition.

Image Gallery

To see some highlighted images from the exhibition, visit this Flickr photo album.

Very Like a Whale children's exhibition

Supplemental materials


Hear insights on a selection of items from the exhibition from the curators.

Welcome to Very Like a Whale

Hear co-curator Michael Witmore introduce the exhibition.

Shadows and Mirrors (case 1)

Listen to Witmore discuss how shadows and mirrors shift understanding.

  • LOAN courtesy of Rosamond Purcell. 4 mercury glass jars. 20th century. Image.

All the Whale's a Stage (case 2)

Listen to co-curator Rosamond Purcell discuss whales in the Renaissance.

  • FACSIMILE from Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, Belgium. Aangespoelde vinvis te Egmond [Rorqual washed ashore at Egmond], Drawing, 1547. Object number: PK.OT.00826.

To One Thing Constant Never (case 4)

Listen to Whitmore discuss change and the Renaissance idea of Fortune.

  • Andrea Alciati, ed. Pietro Rositini. Emblematum liber. Venice: Sons of Aldo Manuzio, 1546. Call number: 219- 060q; displayed p. 42.

Kircher's Projections (case 5)

Listen to Witmore discuss Kircher's Renaissance device.

  • FACSIMILES. Athanasius Kircher. Physiologia Kircheriana experimentalis …. Amsterdam: Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge, 1680. Call number: 196025; displayed p. 125 and p. 127.
  • Eric Stepp, after Athanasius Kircher (1602–80). Model of metamorphosis room constructed for this exhibition.

The Wars to Come (case 6)

Listen to Witmore discuss the transformative effect of war.

  • Ein wahres Probiertes und Pracktisches geschriebenes Feuerbuch. Manuscript, 1607. Call number: V.b.311; displayed fol.129r and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN courtesy of Rosamond Purcell. Mandrake Root.

Bad Behavior (case 7)

Listen to an example of bad behavior in Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

Awake Your Faith (vitrine after case 7)

Listen to Witmore discuss bringing inanimate objects to life.

A Theater Burns (before case 7)

Listen to Witmore discuss famous fires in theaters.

  • LOAN courtesy of Richard Balzer. Backlit Protean View: Simon Fokke. Afbeelding der eerst uitslaande Vlamme in de Amsterdamschen Schouwburg. Amsterdam: G. Warnars & P. den Hengst, 1772. Image.

Art That Nature Makes (case 8)

Listen to Witmore discuss how art appears in nature.

  • LOAN courtesy of Rosamond Purcell. Fossilized ammonite.
  • LOAN courtesy of Rosamond Purcell. Wisconsin river concretions. Image.
  • LOAN courtesy of Julia Sheehan. Small agate “Volcano.”

Poison and Antidote (case 9)

Listen to Witmore discuss apothecary jars.

  • LOAN courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. 4 Apothecary Jars. Italian Renaissance.

The Book of Nature (case 13)

Listen to Witmore discuss the character of Caliban.


Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and co-curator of the exhibition, shares a welcome message.

Hear Witmore explain the connection between art and nature during the Renaissance.

The powerful magician Prospero used books to gain knowledge and wield power over others. Michael Witmore explains the role of books in Renaissance knowledge and what they might mean to someone like Prospero.

Photographer Rosamond Purcell explains her process working with scholar Michael Witmore to create the unique images seen in the exhibition.

Related publications

In their book, Landscapes of the Passing Strange, co-curators Rosamond Purcell and Michael Witmore collaboratively explore the transcendent emotion in Shakespeare's work through photographs, pairing the allusive power of images with the subversive effects of Shakespeare's language.

The book can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

Purcell, Rosamond and Michael Witmore. Landscapes of the passing strange: reflections from Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2011.
Folger Call number: PR2883 .P87 2011

Related programs

Talks and Screenings at the Folger

  • Very Like a Weasel: The Cyclical and Ever Changing Nature of Deceit, Ricky Jay, November 8, 2012
  • Gallery Talk: Very Like a Whale, November 14, 2012