“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, Prologue
Historical figure, Cultural icon, Bard and Playwright, studied at school and still performed around the world, Shakespeare, through his plays, dealt with universal issues that were not just of a time, but for all time. A Strange Kind of Peace, Blog post Prologue
Perhaps it’s because his plays were multicultural, historical and contemporary, providing not just entertainment, but reflecting the times back to the audience, and although the settings would be different, the messages were more plain to see.
It is this reflection of the world, back to the world that is the theme of the British Museum’s Staging the World exhibition, rather than looking at the man or his plays, it reflects them back on the world that Shakespeare and his audience lived in, and how events fed into the plays that till resonate today.
Near the beginning London is laid out in London (The Long View)(1647) by Wenceslaus Hollar, who is forgiven, it seems, for labelling the Globe the Beer Bayting House. Also on display are a sword and dagger, the mobile phones and headphones of the day, and things you definitely left the house with, particularly if crossing across to the dirty south side of the river.
As you weave your way around the carefully thought out space of the famous Reading Room, the exhibition looks at Shakespeare’s enduring love of Stratford upon Avon, alongside the Sheldon tapestry map of Warwickshire is a bed valance, depicting country life, something that Shakespeare portrayed with unforgiving realness. How he used the past to reflect the present, with funeral regalia such as the helm and sword from Henry V, as England forged a new beginning for itself as a Protestant nation.
“We few, we happy few,
We band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blodd with me,
Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile” Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3
The Classical world, where Julius Caeser allowed the the exploration of the concerns of the succession of Elizabeth, contained a video of Paterson Joseph as Brutus, with the coin he held as he justified his own part in the plot. Another video containing Shylock, the jewish moneylender from The Merchant of Venice, sits among drawings of contemporary Venice along with a glass goblet and other luxuries from the Italian city, an aspiration of all that London wanted to be.
With the death of the childless Elizabeth, James the VI of Scotland became James I of England. The discovery of the gunpowder plot and James own insistence of being the target of witchcraft (an edition of his work Demonologie is included) led to Macbeth, whose troubled Protagonist became more famous than the real King Macbeth. Still James survived and forged ahead with trying to unit England and Scotland, including the drawing of an incredible family tree (shown in it’s full size with a video covering the detail) and early plans for the Union Flag, perhaps even more relevant given Scotland’s desire to split today.
It was also at this time that new worlds were being discovered and captured natives were being brought back to the old world, reflected in The Tempest when Trinculo encounters Caliban.
“When they will not give a doit to relieve
a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” The Tempest, Act 2 Scene 2
The items on show here though,including an actual Narwhale horn, thought to be from a unicorn, seem to dissolve as you hear the gravel of Ian Mckellan’s voice as he appears in a video as Prospero.
Ben Jonson, a friend of Shakespeare, declared him “Not of an age, but for all time” and this exhibition goes some way to explaining why.
Even without knowing all of his plays (I have only read Macbeth at school and seen a midsummer nights dream) the narrative, combined with the video, audio and quotes, bring not only the objects on display to life, but the plays themselves, and, just as interestingly, the world around them. The exhibition not only puts the plays in the context of their own time, but brings alive the history of England, and how Shakespeare tapped into the feeling of the people and place around him.
“Cowards die many times before the deaths
The valiant never taste of death but once” Julius Caeser, Act 2 Scene 2
The exhibition is on until the 25th of November, link to the BM site here
Link to the Royal Shakespeare Company here
Link to the Globe theatre here
It is also complimented by a twenty part radio 4 series, Shakespeare’s restless world, narrated by the excellent Neil Macgregor, that can be downloaded as a podcast here
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