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Welcome to Episode #191 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare uses the word “pearl” over 40 times across his works. He describes them as objects of high value, and in Troilus and Cressida, uses the pearl to describe a rare and valuable woman saying “she is a pearl, Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships.” The pearl trade was an industry well established under Henry VIII of England, who looked to the pearl trade as a way to strengthen England’s international relations after separation from Catholicism left them in need of some strong allies. Elizabeth I continued this pursuit, but enhanced the value of the pearl in England up to six fold, by some scholarly estimates, over the 

first 60 years in the 16th century due in part to the fact that the Queen literally wore thousands of them herself. Many of her most opulent outfits, appearing in numerous royal portraits of Elizabeth I, feature thousands of this precious gemstone. During Elizabeth’s reign, England regularly imported pearls by the shipload from countries like Morocco, Persia, and China. The imagery and symbolism of the pearl in England is associated with purity, chastity, and even, as the description for the ocular disease cataracts, which Shakespeare alludes to in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rape of Lucrece.

Our guest this week is Saoirse Laarachi, a PhD candidate with the Shakespeare Institute, and author of Pearls: Trade, Beauty and North Africa for Medieval and Early Modern Orients. She joins us today to share the history of pearls in Shakspeare’s lifetime to discuss their use in general fashion, their purpose in international trade agreements, and what we should understand about Pearls from the Orient, specifically, when we find these references in Shakespeare’s plays. 

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Saoirse Laarachi is a Doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute. Her work surrounds rethinking the early modern body and how it was adorned and performed in the 16th and 17th centuries. She has written for the King’s Centre for Early Modern Studies on prosthesis and is currently a research member of Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).

Books & Resources Recommended by Saiorse Laarachi:

Oranamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories – Edited and Introduced by Bella Mirabella (there’s a great chapter all on Pearls by Karen Raber

Black Tudors – Miranda Kaufmann 

Of Pearls and Scimitars: The Shakespearean Bazaar of Oriental Props – Ladan Niayesh* 

* This article is in French, but you can select “english” under the translation options available at the website. Look under “abstracts” for a tab to select English.

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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • The Rainbow Portrait, c. 1600-02: Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
  • Couching of cataract in the second half of the 16th century: Image from Gorin G.’s “History of Ophthalmology”
  • 16th-century manuscript, depicts surgical instruments for cataract and hernia operations in the mid-1500s
  • The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, c. 1588: Anonymously painted, commemorates the defeat of the Spanish Armada
  • Illustration from Viaggio da Venetia: Depicts ancient Syria, Giuseppe Rosaccio,1598.
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