Shakespeare: Staging the World

Shakespeare's plays are centre stage at the British Museum, with his words being used as catalysts to explain the world he inhabited and the historical role of London. Although it offers relatively few new insights into a much-discussed topic, much of the exhibition is fascinating, and it will surely be worth a visit for those who know little about Shakespeare. 

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Shakespeare's plays are centre stage at the British Museum, with his words being used as catalysts to explain the world he inhabited and the historical role of London as a growing city. The result never settles easily, bouncing between the Bard and various historical periods without delivering a particularly insightful view on either - but with plenty of charming artifacts and RSC actors giving some of his most famous speeches, are these flaws serious enough to dissuade visitors?

It appears the upcoming Olympics have turned everyone a little Shakespeare-mad - not that that's a bad thing, but he seems to be turning up everywhere: a UK-wide festival and television specials lobby for our attention as much as the latest show at the Globe, and his lines will even be flooding the Olympic Stadium to open the games. We've latched onto Shakespeare as something quintessential British, an ideal patron for London in a year when more tourists than ever descend on the capital - and why not? His iconic words are still performed here 400-odd years later, and, in a time when (some would argue) traditional British identity is slowly being transformed by a bizarre combination of global multiculturism and European isolationism, it's nice to hark back to a recognisably, ineffably British figure.

However, it's too easy to pick one horse and flog it to death - and I fear the British Museum may be contributing to this. It's clear that this exhibition is geared towards a general audience rather than for Shakespeare scholars - and especially for non-British visitors who lack our more-or-less inherited knowledge of the Bard. Much of the exhibition is fascinating, with lots to look at and enjoy, and it will surely be worth a visit for those who know little about Shakespeare, but it offers relatively few new insights into a much-discussed topic. Putting all of these artifacts in one place is an achievement, but this exhibition is rather like a Shakespeare comedy trotted out in a pub garden - perfectly enjoyable, but with little to fire the intellect.

The plays are categorised into their historical eras, with plenty of information about the historical context into which they fall - often focusing on where the two overlap, and carefully avoiding any of Shakespeare's glaring errors (which I've always found charming, the casual inaccuracies of the passionate storyteller). The focus is definitely historical - when was Shakespeare writing? What influenced him? What was happening around him? - and when this works, it's fascinating: a room about Shakespeare's relation to James I after Elizabeth I's death is particularly interesting, contextualising Macbeth in lovely detail, but much of the exhibition seems to take a far simpler approach. For example, in one room we see Henry V's funeral garb - because Shakespeare wrote about Henry V. Too often, the curators have placed artifacts without enough detail or context, which may be all the casual observer wants, but which in the end offers little in-depth information or insight.

Similarly, the RSC's contribution of various filmed or recorded pieces ranges from the aptly-chosen to the overly simplistic - I don't want to pick on Henry V too much, but having one of his speeches played over the speakers while looking at his ceremonial sword had no impact whatsoever. However, moments like playing the Witches' description of wrecking a ship in the section about the notoriously superstitious James I illustrate the play beautifully - it's just a shame that there weren't more displays like this.

My main criticism, however, is the exhibition's lack of new information. Shakespeare's life and times are still shrouded in some mystery - and yet this celebration of his work in relation to its possible historical context offers nothing truly new. It feels like just that - a celebration - and, sadly, little else. Yes, the artifacts are gorgeous, but more often than not it feels like an exhibition of historically accurate theatre props, and lacks real bite.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with an exhibition aimed at the casual observer - especially in a time when London will be flooded with them. But having little new to offer to the ardent Shakespeare fan feels like an odd choice - surely this exhibition could have had a bit of both?

During the summer of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games the British Museum is presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival in the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.  The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad. 


One of the key innovations of the period was the birth of the modern professional theatre: purpose-built playhouses and professional playwrights were a new phenomenon, with the most successful company being the Chamberlain's/King's Men at the Globe who worked alongside their house dramatist, William Shakespeare. The exhibition shows how the playhouse informed, persuaded and provoked thought on the issues of the day; how it shaped national identity, first English, then British; and how the theatre opened a window on the wider world, from Italy to Africa to America, as London's global contacts were expanding through international trade, colonisation and diplomacy.  

The exhibition creates a unique dialogue between an extraordinary array of objects – from great paintings and rare manuscripts to modest, everyday items of the time – and the plays and characters that have had a richer cultural legacy than any other in the western world.  Among the objects linked to Shakespeare and his works is the Ides of March coin, the gold aureus commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; a plot in which he was a key figure and the subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers from Barbary who came to London in 1600 on a state visit. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of fascination and of fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare: they may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’. 


The exhibition also explores the theatre-going experience at the time, which was very different to that of today. The newly built playhouses were situated in the suburbs: Bankside was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, the cultural world inhabited by the playhouse, which rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas as well as brothels and pubs. 


The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance.  The British Museum will produce, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a series of new digital interventions which will appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside the objects on display. The arrival of the Games to London in 2012 provides the opportunity to reflect on how the world came to London four centuries ago, and how Londoners perceived the world when global exchange and other aspects of modernity originated.

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