Alongside the Olympics this year, the World Shakespeare Festival is taking place, with many events occurring in London that I’ve been able to take advantage of. The British Museum has got in on the act, with an exhibition called Shakespeare: Staging the World. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I found out about it. Luckily I work fairly close to the British Museum so was able to pop there on Friday night after work – they are open late so it is the ideal time to go if you work all week but want to avoid the weekend crowds.
While I think it’s a huge shame that the famous Round Reading Room has been hijacked as an exhibition space, I do think that the staff and curators have done a good job in assembling an absorbing and well laid out exhibition. The first thing I saw as I went up the stairs was a copy of the First Folio under glass – I’ve seen this on display before but it’s always exciting to see it again. The exhibition began on a comparatively small scale, examining late sixteenth century London with a famous panoramic view of the city on display and an assortment of objects recovered from theatres of the Tudor era, including toothpicks, coins and pipes. I picked up an interesting snippet of information about the origins of the word ‘groundling’ (used to refer to spectators standing in the pit, both in Tudor times and at the modern Globe on Bankside) – it was, apparently, a fish with the habit of “lying on the bottom of the river, gazing at the surface with its mouth open”.
When I originally heard about this exhibition, I was surprised that it was being held in the British Museum. Surely the British Library would be a more appropriate showcase for an exhibition on the most famed English-speaking writer in history? However, I soon began to realise that I was wrong. The exhibition is much more concerned with objects, and what they convey about the world in Shakespeare’s time, than books and literature per se. Many of these items come from the extensive collections held by the British Museum, and others have been borrowed from other museums and galleries. Among the items on display were an assortment of portraits and maps, objects from far-off lands (including a lamp from Calabar, now Nigeria, and a picture of the ambassador from Barbary, now Morocco), and the helmet and sword believed to have been worn by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt (on display in Westminster Abbey until the 1970s).
After setting the scene in London, the exhibition moves to consider the wider world. In Shakespeare’s day, explorers and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake were discovering more than ever before about the world beyond Europe, and Shakespeare was able to make use of this knowledge in several of his plays, including The Tempest and Twelfth Night. As well as discoveries about Asia and the Americas, Shakespeare also used inspiration from closer to home, such as the Forest of Arden near Stratford-upon-Avon, which he used to memorable effect in As You Like It.
The exhibition explores how and why Shakespeare set his own plays in alternative worlds in order to comment more freely on his own society. I found this section particularly enlightening. For example, the history plays were written with Elizabeth I in mind: there’s a reason why Richard III was portrayed as an angry hunchback and Henry Tudor as the noble, rightful ruler. Henry V portrays a warlike nationalism that might have encouraged contemporary society to feel similar pride in their Englishness, particularly given the ongoing war with Spain. Other plays, such as Julius Caesar, deal with controversial topics such as the assassination of a ruler: by setting them in the classical world Shakespeare could explore these topics without exposing himself to royal wrath (at least not to the same extent). I already knew some of this, but I had no idea, in spite of studying it for A Level, that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the eponymous play was to some extent inspired by Elizabeth I’s relationship with her favourite, the Earl of Essex. ‘The Virgin Queen’ couldn’t seem more remote from the sensual Egyptian leader, but one thing the two did have in common was their role as a leader in a man’s world.
I enjoyed the section on Venice: Shakespeare set a number of plays here (it is rumoured that he travelled to the city during his ‘lost years’), and often treats it as a kind of parallel to London, a modern city with all the problems and complexities that urban areas encounter. I found the section on foreigners – ‘strangers’ – particularly interesting. Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, the ‘Moor’ of the city, both belong in this category, and the ideas and feelings explored in these plays are profound, highly relevant and in many ways ahead of their time.
I often think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but he wrote many of his major works under the reign of James I, drawing inspiration from issues brought up by the new dynasty and the unification of England and Scotland. The exhibition explores the Gunpowder Plot and James’ hatred of witchcraft, both of which helped to inspire Macbeth, and examines the attempted unification of Britain which Shakespeare drew on when writing Cymbeline, the play about the Roman conquest of the ancient Britons. The roughly chronological exploration ends with the Bard’s last solo-authored play, The Tempest, and the ‘brave new world’ it heralds, as well as suggesting that sixteenth-century ‘magician’ John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero.
I loved the exhibition: it was very well laid out and presented, and though I have read and seen several of Shakespeare’s plays, have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and read a few books about him, I still learned things that I hadn’t known before.
Shakespeare: Staging the World is on until 25 November.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys looking at museum gift shops, and the British Museum’s is particularly special. I really wanted the exhibition catalogue (which is more substantial than it sounds, it is a proper book), but it was a bit expensive so I decided to put it on my Christmas list instead. I DID splash out on a mini volume containing summaries of all Shakespeare’s plays and a ruler listing the plays and their (approximate) dates of composition, which I genuinely think will come in handy. I also got a collapsible water bottle with the museum logo, because, really, who wouldn’t want one of those? Finally I impulse-bought a British Museum canvas bag. You can never have too many canvas bags, and if I’m going to promote something with the bag I’m using, it might as well be something I love.