Year of Shakespeare: Staging the World

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

The exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World focuses on Shakespeare’s ‘world rather than his life’. Droeshout’s image of Shakespeare looms over the ticket booking process, the programme, and the entrance to the spiralling exhibition at the centre of the British Museum, and it originates the first object that visitors encounter, the 1623 First Folio. Yet Staging the World quickly, and deliberately, expands beyond him. Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton’s exhibition sets out to establish a ‘dialogue’ between the ‘imaginary worlds of Shakespeare’s plays and objects from the real worlds in which he and his audiences lived’; and the way in which this immense collection of objects is entwined with Shakespeare’s words, written and performed, secured an equal conversation. The exhibition is neither a source study for Shakespeare’s plays, nor an attempt to prove Shakespeare’s global influence. Rather, it is a marvellous evocation of a cultural moment that has Shakespeare in its midst, responding to events, and shaping how others saw them.

It begins in familiar territory, leading the visitor from the Folio to Wenceslas Hollar’s famous panoramic view of London, with Bankside’s theatres jostling in the foreground. Surprises follow: a delicate painting of a Thames boat crossing, taken from the friendship book of a European visitor, offers a glimpse of how others vividly remembered their experience of theatregoing. Simon Forman’s handwritten eyewitness account of seeing The Winter’s Tale performed, and even a page of Shakespeare’s own hand in Sir Thomas More, are magical moments, too. Items often cited and imagined by scholars are here taking on real, physical form.

Some objects, at first, could appear an exercise in tenuousness. Near to the entrance hangs a golden ‘musical chamber clock’, dating from 1598. On the adjacent wall is printed a short quotation from Romeo and Juliet: ‘The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse’; the description below suggests that clocks were used to make dramatic points in Shakespeare’s plays. On paper, this clock has little to do with the play. It does not claim to be the precise kind of timepiece to which a character like Juliet might have referred, nor to offer a new insight into her words. Yet the very presence and beauty of such objects encourages viewers to shed such a limited, footnoting approach: this is what a ‘clock’ might have meant to Shakespeare and his audiences, and thus, now, to us. Sometimes the most glancing connections can be the most illuminating. Similarly loosely related objects – from the painting of the Judgement of Solomon that Shakespeare may have seen on performing Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors at Middle Temple Hall and Gray’s Inn, to the beautiful bracelet given by Elizabeth I to his patron, Lord Hunsdon – ably, and cumulatively, hint that Shakespeare was part of larger cultures and communities in which he was not always centre stage. Nowhere is this point more beautifully made than in the collection of objects unearthed from The Rose Theatre: the balaster, the tiny dice, the fork, and even the ingeniously combined tooth- and ear-pick, suggest an audience for all kinds of theatrical entertainment that was often, but not always, supplied by Shakespeare.

The exhibition thus adds a fascinating dimension to the World Shakespeare Festival, upholding Shakespeare not as the centre of the known theatrical universe, but as an astute writer who lived and worked at the major junction of trade, news, travel and ideas that was London. With references to ‘expanding global contacts’, ‘human traffic’ and even ‘race riots’, the descriptions give to the objects and images associated with Elizabethan foreign policy a sense of contemporary relevance, effectively blurring the boundaries between a rapidly growing early modern capital, and ‘London 2012’, the busy twenty-first-century city on which, when the exhibition first opened, international visitors were converging to compete in the Olympics. Shakespeare’s London, as presented here, share with the World Shakespeare Festival, and the Olympics more broadly, a common language of energy, internationalism, identity, and pride.

From the material delights – bedsteads and maps among them – of Warwickshire and the ‘Forest of Arden’ (Shakespeare ‘remained proud of his regional roots’), worlds continue to unfold: the medieval past, the classical world, the sumptuous beauty of Venice, and the expansiveness of the new world of the Americas, among others, occupy successive rooms. Along the way, objects are interwoven with performance: Forbes Masson (Jacques) and Katy Stephens (Rosalind) reprise their dialogue about melancholy from Michael Boyd’s RSC’s As You Like It, in unlikely conversation with John Donne’s portrait. Geoffrey Streatfeild rouses his troops on a big screen behind the sword, helm, and seal-die thought to be associated with Henry V, and displayed in Westminster Abbey in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Jonjo O’Neill twists in silent torment across three television screens while Richard III’s words appeared on the surrounding walls, near where a processional cross with the badge of the House of York is displayed (accompanied by the briefest quotation: ‘son of York’).

The RSC collaboration challenges the division between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘real’, and questions which had the greater auratic hold over visitors. Objects that might have been associated with an historical king meet the ‘live’-seeming speech and movement of contemporary actors. At the same time, phrases once attached to particular characters and plots are released from their plays and attach to abstract ideas; while for listeners to Neil McGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World, objects conjure in the mind’s eye, via the ear, now took on ‘real’, visible shape.

The exhibition’s much-vaunted final object – the ‘Robben Island Bible’ – can not but stir the imagination. Open at a page in Julius Caesar, this modern edition of Shakespeare had been movingly inscribed by ANC prisoners. Next to the words ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths’ is the signature of an incarcerated Nelson Mandela – a signature that made instantly palpable Shakespeare’s global significance. Launching its visitors back out into the world with the words ‘somehow Shakespeare always has something to say to us’, this dazzling exhibition must surely tempted us back for more.

Shakespeare: Staging the World runs at The British Museum until 25 November.

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Author:Kate Rumbold

Kate Rumbold is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Birmingham. She writes about the way Shakespeare is quoted and valued in literature and culture, from his own lifetime to the twenty-first century.

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