Shakespeare: Staging the World

William Shakespeare

(British Museum, until 25 November)

Even though I’m a bit of a Bardophile, I make the mistake of looking at Shakespeare’s plays as texts, rather than as expressions of a living, vivid, turbulent world. When I watch Romeo and Juliet, or As You Like It, or The Merchant of Venice, I focus on the world that Shakespeare is creating, rather than the world that created him. And that’s where this exhibition provides a really interesting counter-balance.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

(Henry V, Act I, Scene 1)

Beneath this highly appropriate quote – the exhibition is once again in the circular Reading Room – the British Museum kicks off its summer show, Shakespeare: Staging the World. Its ambition is to bring Shakespeare’s London to life; to enable visitors to understand the allusions in his plays as his contemporaries would have done; and to gently remind tout le monde, who have descended upon London for the Olympics, that England isn’t all about sport.

To live in London circa 1600 was to be in a world that was still finding its feet: a world where violence and conspiracy seethed beneath the surface; where you could take in a play after having been to the bear-baiting; where heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered and their co-believers gathered up their relics; where explorers pressed back the limits of the known world, bringing home stories about countries that most ordinary Londoners had never imagined even existed… What this exhibition does so well is to take evidence of these times and to show how they might have inspired a Stratford grammar-school boy to write some of the most famous plays of all time.  (N.B. For any pro-Oxfordians who might still be reading this blog in the wake of my scathing comments on Anonymous, the argument stands for whoever wrote the plays.)

Jacobean woman's jacket

A woman’s jacket from the Jacobean period, embroidered with plants and flowers

It begins with some scene-setting and an introduction to the world of the London playgoer circa 1600: an oak baluster from the Rose Theatre; pocket-sized dice, with which an idle audience member might have amused himself in the interval; a curious implement designed as a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other; and a sword and dagger. Thanks to the Wallace Collection’s exhibition on rapiers, I was already aware that it wasn’t wise to walk the night-time streets of Elizabethan London. The weapons displayed at the entrance of the show were dredged up out of the Thames, perhaps thrown there on some dark night to conceal a crime. If you take the multimedia guide, you can study them while listening to the swaggering braggadocio of the young men who might have carried them: ‘Do you bite your thumb at me sir?’ This is what I enjoyed so much about the show: it not only introduces you to objects that characterise Shakespeare’s England, it directly relates them back to the language of his plays.

Each of the small rooms in this labyrinthine show focuses on a particular theme: the nature of kingship, the growing 16th-century interest in gardening and horticulture, the Elizabethan relationship with the antique, the English view of Venice, witchcraft, magic, heresy and the Gunpowder Plot, or the New World. It brings the plays into sharper focus: I’m slightly embarrassed to say, for example, that I’d never connected the themes of witchcraft in Macbeth with Shakespeare’s desire to impress the superstitious James I, who had himself written a treatise on witches. Beyond the texts, the exhibits combine to create an intriguing picture of 16th-century England, its pride, hopes and fears – the saddle Henry V allegedly used in France sits alongside an early Tudor propaganda portrait of Richard III; a beautiful woman’s jacket embroidered with country flowers; or a cheeky, lift-the-flap drawing of a Venetian courtesan, which shows her wearing men’s breeches under her skirts.

Dr Dee's Obsidian Mirror

Dr John Dee’s obsidian mirror (left) with a crystal ball, three wax discs and one gold disc engraved with magical names and symbols

Drawings by John White of natives of the New World (a welcome reminder of the really wonderful exhibition a few years ago) suggest what Shakespeare may have had in mind when creating his Caliban; and, as an example of a real-life Prospero, the BM includes an obsidian mirror which belonged to Dr Dee, which gave back a smoky reflection as I craned to see into it. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pictures – the portrait of John Donne as a melancholy man dressed all in black with folded arms; the glorious miniature of Edward Herbert, reclining in a wood, by Isaac Oliver; the Portrait of the Earl of Southampton displayed beside the very armour he’s wearing in said portrait; the British Museum’s own drawing of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel; and, of course, portraits of Elizabeth I. Some of these, like the Allegory of the Tudor Succession, aren’t of the highest quality, but their message is more important and more interesting: they show Elizabeth’s need to be accepted as her father’s heir, and (via the Sieve Portrait) to establish her virginity as a political weapon, likening herself to the Vestal Tuccia.

It is a great exhibition, but not perfect. Initially I liked the idea of having recorded performances throughout the show: it would be the ideal way to tie Shakespeare’s words to the themes highlighted in each room. Sadly, it quickly became very distracting. Perhaps my nerves are just particularly frail, or maybe I was moving around more slowly than everyone else and so suffered more, but the excerpts were quite short and on a relentless loop. Much as I love the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, I began to feel rather agitated when, for the seventh time in ten minutes, the disembodied head on the wall began to proclaim, ‘This day is call’d the feast of Crispian’. I was absolutely unable to block the words out as I looked at the other exhibits in the same section. It might have been more effective to have the performances recorded on the multimedia guide, so that people could listen to them when they wanted and as many or as few times as they wished, without disturbing anyone else.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun

English School, Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, ambassador to England from the King of Barbary (Morocco), c. 1600

The problem is that, while background music can be really effective in setting a scene, as it was in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, background talking tends to monopolise my attention. Which probably proves nothing except that I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper.

To those who might be tempted to see this as just another ‘safe’ exhibition, dealing with a period of history that is dead and gone, and which might appeal to bluestocking history fans but not to the chic contemporary-art-gallery-going crowd, I would say this. The story of Shakespeare’s London, Shakespeare’s world, is not that different from the story of our own times. A nation ruled by a Queen Elizabeth, where Ireland and even Wales resent English rule and strive to keep their own identities, where street violence erupts between young men who feel they have something to prove, and where religious tension crackles in the air… Doesn’t that sound like somewhere we know?

I should spare a word for the catalogue, which is extremely good (and I say that without having  read it all yet!). For those who can’t see the exhibition, or who want to learn more, it offers an excellent insight into the social and intellectual mindset of the age, with good illustrations of all the exhibits. It’s also beautifully designed, with page numbers and title headings printed in a typically ‘Shakespearean’ font, and plentiful quotations. I shall be devouring it in full before I follow the footsteps of those playgoers four hundred years ago, and head off to the Globe in a couple of weeks, to savour my own slice of Elizabethan England.

So: is all the world a stage; or is the stage the world? Discuss…

Buy the catalogue

This post was written before I began working at the British Museum.

The Lyte Jewel

The Lyte Jewel

6 thoughts on “Shakespeare: Staging the World

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