Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum

By Jennie Gillions | 19 July 2012
An image of a large wide brown skull against a white background
This skull of a bear - thought to belong to a female who had suffered a blow to the back of the head - was excavated from the site of the original Globe Theatre© Dulwich College, London
Exhibition: Shakespeare: Staging the World, British Museum, London, July 19 – November 25 2012

What is there left to say about William Shakespeare? In the inventive and eminently capable hands of British Museum curators, a surprising amount.

An image of the frontispiece for a book of prose showing the male author on the front
The Arundel First Folio features an engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout© Governors of Stonyhurst College
Rather than re-treading old ground and dissecting what little we still know of Shakespeare the man, this new exhibition sweeps visitors through the world in which he lived – the politically and religiously sensitive, continually expanding world that found its way into his plays.

The first object in the exhibition is, unsurprisingly, the beautiful 1623 First Folio, compiled by Shakespeare’s colleagues after his death in 1616 and containing 36 works.

During Shakespeare’s career, London was becoming global in a modern sense; the world suddenly grew for Londoners when Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated it, and people started producing accurately-plotted maps and globes.

Immigration became a talking point as Protestants fled Catholic Europe for security in England, a small black African community (roughly 900 out of a population of 200,000) made London home, and the exotic Moroccan ambassador made a six-month visit – he was probably the inspiration behind Othello.

An image of a black ink illustration of a bird-like creature with the head of a woman
Melchior Lorch, Harpy or Siren (1852). Woodcut print© Trustees of the British Museum
Despite being forever associated with the theatres of London, Shakespeare was a country boy. Imagined places like the Forest of Arden, in As You Like It, are representations of his Warwickshire homeland, and a huge tapestry county map, dating from around 1588, reminds visitors that his view of London came with an outsider’s detachment.

The new London, the exhibition makes clear, heavily influenced Shakespeare’s plots and characters.

Theatre-goers would have recognised the social issues popping up in his plays. They would also have recognised the historical and political commentary, particularly regarding King James I’s accession in 1603.

James was not only the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland, but also the first to rule a wholly Protestant England. The tension between the two faiths never went away (one wonderfully gruesome exhibit is the “Reliquary containing the right eye of Edward Oldcorne”, a Catholic priest executed for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot), though Shakespeare took pains to exert ideas of a new English identity through works such as Julius Caesar and Cymbeline, the latter being a fantastical imagining of James’s success in uniting his kingdoms.

An image of an ancient solid silver lantern from the 17th century with a cylindrical top
This sheet iron lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes, was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
On occasion, Shakespeare’s political writing put him at risk. The only surviving fragment of his handwritten manuscript comes from a banned, multi-authored play about Sir Thomas More that was never performed.

Still, had it not been banned it would not have survived; as the curators point out, once a play had been performed, scripts went in the bin.

Despite his interest in travel, as far as scholars know Shakespeare never left England; his Venice, his Florence and his unknown island that is the setting for the Tempest emerged from explorers’ reports, his own imagination and gorgeous pieces like the Molyneux Globes, made in 1592 and shown towards the end of the exhibition. They are the earliest surviving pair of English globes.

Seven years later, when he named his theatre The Globe, Shakespeare was consciously opening Londoners up to this new world, linking unprecedented geographical discovery with an exciting era of theatrical exploration of which he was master.

The exhibition concludes with the Robben Island Bible, a stunning piece of history in its own right and one that confirms, if confirmation were needed, Shakespeare’s global penetration.

This 1970 edition of The Complete Works was owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, imprisoned on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid work in 1970s South Africa.

Permitted one religious book, Sonny snuck in his Shakespeare by decorating it with images of Hindu deities. He shared it with his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to mark their favourite passages. The book is open at the page in Julius Caesar signed by Nelson Mandela.  

Nobody who sees this exhibition should be left in any doubt as to the persistent importance of Shakespeare, either for our understanding of London during his lifetime or as an ambassador for England in a year when the world is looking our way.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Tickets £7-£14 (free for under-16s), book online.

More pictures:

An image of a jewel featuring a portrait of a 17th century nobleman encased in gold
The Lyte Jewel, in enamelled gold with diamonds, contains miniatures of James VI and I by Thomas Hilliard. It was made in London and presented to Thomas Lyte in 1610 in thanks for his royal genealogy, which helped trace James' descent, through Banquo, from Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain© Trustees of the British Museum
An image of an oil painting of a nobleman clasping a sword dressed in 17th century robes
This portrait of Richard III with a broken sword, in oil on panel, was made by an unknown artist at some point between 1523 and 1555© Society of Antiquaries of London, 2011
An image of a small circular white holder containing the remains of an eye inside it
Reliquary containing the right eye of the Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ (circa 1606). Silver (Stonyhurst College)© By permission of the British Jesuit Province
An image of an ancient circular gold coin engraved with letters and a pair of swords
This is the reverse of the Ides of March coin (43-42 BC), commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar. It shows the daggers with which Julius Caesar was murdered and a cap of liberty to symbolise the idea of the liberation of Rome from Caesar's rule. It has been lent by Michael Winckless© Trustees of the British Museum
An image of a painting of a 17th century Middle Eastern man in robes with a sword
An oil portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, the ambassador to England from the King of Barbary (Morocco), made by an unknown artist in England in around 1600© Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Birmingham)
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