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Shakespeare Staging the World
Exhibition at the British Museum

Thursday 8 November 2012

In 2012 the world came to London to celebrate the Olympic Games and, as part of the London 2012 Festival, the British Museum mounted its Exhibition entitled “Shakespeare Staging the World” which examined the emerging role of London as a world city 400 years ago seen through the perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.  It also examined the role of Shakespeare’s theatre in being for its audiences a window on the world outside London and afforded us our own glimpse into the life and times of the Elizabethan era.  And so, Cranleigh DFAS also came to London this week to be part of the experience.

After the customary coffee and cookies we joined other groups in the BP Theatre for a lecture by Becky Allen, the Curator of the Exhibition.  This illustrated lecture provided an overview of the aims and structure of the Exhibition we were to enjoy but she disappointingly rattled through it at breakneck speed which made it rather difficult to follow and left me with the feeling of an opportunity lost.

The Exhibition itself, however, did not disappoint.  As is the practice at the British Museum, the Exhibition was imaginatively staged and lit with many fascinating artefacts to be seen both from the 16th Century and earlier.  Video cameos of important Shakespeare speeches were interspersed among the exhibits and these were performed on a loop by actors from the RSC.

The Exhibition was divided into sections starting with an examination of London (especially the South Bank which was a newly built and rather seedy suburb with its bear baiting pit and Shakespeare’s playhouse).  In contrast we then progressed to the Forest of Arden for a view of rural England and thence to sections covering the medieval past, the classical world, Venice (being a modern city), kingship, rebellion and witchcraft, the origins of “Great Britain”, exploration of new worlds and Shakespeare’s legacy.

For me, some exhibits stood out above the others.  A rapier and dagger found in the Thames mud served as a reminder that people regularly wore weapons in London streets and that street fights and other forms of violence were commonplace.  The head of a bear with its pitted skull and filed-down teeth bore witness to barbaric entertainment.  As an illustration of the new interest in mapping England and its counties we saw the Sheldon tapestry of Warwickshire, which was actually one of several woven as maps of different counties, depicting little sketches of various towns of importance, including Stratford.

Sheldon Tapestry of Warwickshire – close-up of Stratford

At about this time Drake had returned from his circumnavigation of the world and coloured strangers started to be seen in London.  We saw a portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun (what a lovely name!) who was a rich and educated ambassador from the King of Barbary and who typified the “valiant Moor” of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Henry V served as an example of Shakespeare’s medieval history plays, and displayed were the achievements of the king (normally seen in Westminster Abbey) comprising his saddle, shield, sword and helmet.  The playhouse had a role in exploring the past and helping to forge a new sense of identity as England reinvented itself as a Protestant nation in a Catholic Europe.  Here a video clip repeated the famous speech from Henry V “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”.

The nature of power was examined in the plays of the classical world.  I was particularly interested to see the actual gold aureus coin struck by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March, alongside a video of the speech from Julius Caesar “…not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more…”. 

Cleopatra’s liaison with Mark Antony invited comparison with Elizabeth I’s passion for the Earl of Essex.  An exquisite little cameo depicted Cleopatra choosing death before dishonour and clasping the asp to her bosom.

Venice was displayed as a modern city.  In Shakespeare’s day it was an open city renowned for its immigrant communities and its reliance on Jewish moneylenders.  In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock appeals to a common humanity across the ethnic divide.  Venice also housed outlandish women in outlandish fashions and we were asked to question how virtuous some of these women were – especially the ones wearing chopines under their skirts!

Chopines - fashion item from Venice, generally attributed to prostitutes

We were also reminded how allegiance to the right political and religious side was a matter of life and death and how rebellion and witchcraft were clamped down upon.  The gunpowder plot was fresh in people’s minds and public executions for treason were a commonplace spectacle.  Body parts were constantly seen hanging from the bridges of London as a deterrent to the rest and bits were sometimes kept as grisly souvenirs.  We saw one eyeball in its own specially made little box.

The Robben Island Bible was the final exhibit shown.  This “bible” was actually a copy of Shakespeare’s plays and was the property of Sonny Venkatrathnam who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.  Each prisoner had marked his own favourite passage and the book was open at Mandela’s choice which was a quote on courage from Julius Caesar: 

“Cowards die many times before their deaths: 
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to be most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Altogether it was a most interesting Exhibition.

Hilary Baker