‘Shakespeare staging the world’ at The British Museum

The introduction to this exhibition begins: We know that the plays were written by an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, but this exhibition focuses on his world more than his life, and that was what it did.   It’s not about the performance of the plays either, although there are special films on continuous loop of a selection of speeches performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

What it does, by reference to the overall themes of the plays, is to examine the contemporary concerns in politics, philosophy, religion, exploration and invention, and displays artefacts from the period which give a visceral peek into the physical reality of the world.  I found the whole thing fascinating, as I followed the winding route around the inside of the old Reading Room, its glorious roof overhead.

It is a true feat of scholarship to have brought together the theses of the way in which all the contemporary controversies,  ideas and influences are referenced in the plays and then to have decided what artefacts might be used to illustrate and contextualise them.

For all the mentions of sword play, we have a sword and dagger,  sharp and shining, dredged, separately from the Thames; to show why the ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction in A Winter’s Tale was not as ridiculous then as it sounds to us now, there is the history of bear baiting in Southwark, and the skull of an animal excavated in the area.

I learnt about the fashion for melancholy among thinking young men of the period; Jacques’ meditations on it in As You Like It may have been parodying the writing and posing of poets such as John Donne; and the idea that for Elizabethan London, Venice represented a city of wealth and luxury, as well as one which was open to immigrants and otherness, and therefore provided the perfect setting for plays exploring those concerns.

I already knew a little about the tightrope Shakespeare trod when writing the history plays, to make sure that he wrote history in a manner that supported the throne and legitimacy of first Elizabeth and then James I, but not the extent to which writing about Cleopatra, a Queen losing her power, was potentially hazardous, and so had to be done in a way to draw great distinctions between a woman undone and made foolish by love, and the strength of the Virgin Queen.

There is no avoiding the violence of the age, from a description of theatre goers walking across London Bridge beneath the heads of the executed to reach the Globe, or of the history of those beheaded or hung drawn and quartered.  Religion and superstition were topics that could be hinted at but not confronted straight on; the closest perhaps being the witches in Macbeth.  It was in this part of the exhibition that the curators elected to display one of the more macabre pieces, the boiled eye of a Jesuit executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, kept as a relic inside a silver case.

The first item on display is the original Folio of the Collected Works, and after the exploration of the world in which they were written, the final piece brings them into the last century, with a cheap mass produced edition of the Complete Works, covered in Hindu picture cards which is owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, and used by him and his fellow inmates in Robben Island.  He asked each person to sign alongside their favourite passage.  The book is open at Nelson Mandela’s, from Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2, Cowards die many times before their deaths, The Valiant never taste of death but once.

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  1. Fascinating! That’s what I loved about London – thoughtful and insightful exhibitions. Reading your account of this one has left me unusually (and surprisingly!) nostalgic.

    • Thank you. I think we have been fortunate in the cultural aspects of the Olympiad; some really excellent shows are being put on now which have clearly been a long time in the planning. I expect the shine will rub off when we’re all back to normal.

  2. What a HUGE and challenging topic, and it sounds like it was extremely well-handled. What a pity that the exhibition can’t travel the world (as the plays themselves have, or phrases or ideas from them). And fancy bringing it all the way back here at the end! Extraordinary.

    • Yes; there was such a lot in the exhibition, and I learnt a lot. I read an interview with one of the curators who said that paradoxically, one of the trickiest things to arrange to get was the Robben Island Shakespeare, not because Sonny V didn’t want to let it come to London, but that there were lots of difficulties in having it transported from Durban… which sounded rather mysterious…


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