Shakespeare on Show: Top Ten Exhibition – ‘The Fall of Man’ as depicted on a brass dish

This week’s ‘Shakespeare on Show’ blog post was written by Museum Collections Assistant, Emily Millward and discusses a brass dish currently displayed in the ‘Shakespeare’s Top Ten Characters’ exhibition at Nash’s House.

 

‘Richard II’ Act III, Scene IV

Queen: ‘Thou, old Adam’s likeness, set to dress this garden, how dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?  What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee to make a second fall of cursed man?’

STRST : SBT 1993-31/451, brass plate with incised  decoration of ‘The Fall of Man’

STRST : SBT 1993-31/451, brass plate with incised
decoration of ‘The Fall of Man’

 

This seventeenth century brass dish has a flat centre surrounded by a raised rim which is decorated with a simple foliage pattern. It is likely that it was made in Germany as several other examples of this type of dish[i] originate from this country. However, unlike similar dishes the decoration in the centre of the dish is incised rather than stamped in relief. The central decoration consists of a scene familiar to many people; a female and a male figure (Adam and Eve) standing either side of a tree which has a serpent entwined around its trunk and branches. This image, known as ‘The Fall of Man’ or ‘The Temptation’ represents a well-known story; after creating Adam and Eve and placing them in the Garden of Eden, God forbids the pair from eating the forbidden fruit (commonly symbolised as an apple) from the Tree of Knowledge. However, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve with the fruit and upon eating it they are banished from the garden.  The story encompasses ideologies of temptation known to the general populace in Shakespeare’s time when religious doctrine was paramount. Shakespeare himself refers to this concept after Lord Scroop’s betrayal resulting in King Henry’s loss of faith and innocence caused by his friend’s disloyalty:

‘Henry V’ Act I, Scene II

King Henry: ‘For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like another fall of man. Their faults are open . . .’

Another brass dish, currently displayed in the Birthroom of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, shows the ‘Fall of Man’ in the more common (and easily visible) stamped relief.

STRST : SBT 1993-31/466, brass plate currently displayed in the Birthplace Birthroom  also depicting ‘The Fall of Man’

STRST : SBT 1993-31/466, brass plate currently displayed in the Birthplace Birthroom
also depicting ‘The Fall of Man’

 

 

 

The dish with the incised decoration is appropriately displayed in the Falstaff character case of the ‘Top Ten’ exhibition. A simple link between Falstaff’s love of food and feasting and the function of an item such as the dish are
clear.  However, there is a more indirect link between the incised image and the personality of this loveable rogue.

Falstaff is a man who freely gives in to the vices drinking and gambling – forbidden fruits which many would try to avoid. Like Adam and Eve before him Falstaff does not escape the temptation of these forbidden fruits unscathed. He suffers from several medical issues and is severely in debt, although he concedes that the debts can be stalled he knows that the physical afflictions are irreversible.

King Henry IV, Part II, Act I, Scene II

Falstaff: ‘the gout galls the one, and the pox pinches the other . . . I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse: borrowing only lingers and linger it out, but the disease is incurable’.

And so it seems that Shakespeare, who would have been exposed to the story of the ‘Fall of Man’ and its associated ideologies, entwined the idea of temptation and consequence (cause and effect) into one of characters. Perhaps one of the most interesting points however, is the fact that Falstaff despite all his indulgences and excess of vices, remains today one of the playwright’s most well-loved characters.

 

 

 


[i] For example M336-1924, 454-1907 and M139-1937, Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

  • Liski

    As for the forbidden fruit – I’ve got some information from the website “World of Fiction” (I don’t know whether it is reliable or not): “The Bible do not clarify what exactly Adam and Eve have eaten. The cause of the fall is designated just as “fruit from the tree”. Later Church proclaimed an apple as that harmful forbidden fruit because of similarity of Latin words “apple” and “evil”. In reality it could be anything, right up to cedar cones and coconuts”.

  • Shakespeare B Trust

    Many thanks for reading the blog entry and for your comment. I agree, the idea that the ‘forbidden fruit’ was an apple is just one theory. The exact nature of the fruit does differ cross-culturally. I get the sense that the story is more about the temptation and the consequences of persuing this rather than the nature of the fruit itself.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.