Part of the World Shakespeare Festival, the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition explores, not Shakespeare’s life, but his world. The exhibition takes you on a journey from medieval England to Shakespeare’s London, from Ancient Rome to Venice, highlighting how the playhouse was “a window to the world”. Divided into nine sections, this is a vast exhibition with nearly 200 items on display ranging from paintings and maps to weapons and 16th century gardening tools, interspersed with films from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The first section, Shakespeare’s London serves as an introduction to the culture of the time, with the artefacts on display helping to evoke the London in which Shakespeare lived. A highlight in this section is the only surviving example of Shakespeare’s handwriting – a manuscript of a banned scene depicting the race riot of 1517, protesting against foreigners in London, written in Shakespeare’s own elegant handwriting.
The second section portrays how plays presented views of the countryside to those in London, focusing on pastoral ideals but also the reality of rural life. Items on display include an ornate citole used to play love songs on stage and an early 16th century watering can – Shakespeare, apparently, was a keen gardener.
The exhibition then moves to The Medieval Past showing how Shakespeare’s plays influenced the public’s understanding of the past and helped to create a sense of national identity when England became a Protestant country. You then move into The Classical World where “Ancient Rome was a mirror held up to Modern London”. This section shows how Shakespeare setting sensitive issues such as conspiracy and assassination in the past allowed them to be performed on stage. Venice and the Modern City displays objects of luxury that would have been recognised by Shakespeare’s audiences, such as shoes and a fan, alongside a rapier that Othello would have used.
Kinship, Rebellion and Witchcraft focuses on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 alongside the “fears of conspiracy, assassination and witchcraft” which feature in Macbeth, and the relationship between Scotland and England. Objects on display in this section include a witch’s collar used to try those accused of witchcraft and early designs of the Great British flag. Following this, the exhibition looks at the The Origins of Great Britain where Shakespeare raised questions about British history. Exploring new Worlds highlights how the wonder of easy travel and exploration were brought onto the stage by Shakespeare. Objects on display include coins, globes, paintings and drawings of newly discovered animals.
The final, and smallest, section is Shakespeare’s Legacy confirming that Shakespeare has “continued to be published, read, and performed across the world”. The Robben Bible, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays that was circulated by ANC activist Sonny Venkatrathnam, among his fellow inmates asking them to sign favourite passages is the focus of this section. Poignantly, the book is held open at the passage from Julius Caesar, “Cowards die many times before their deaths”, where Nelson Mandela has signed his name.
This exhibition immerses you in Shakespeare’s life and time, giving colour and context to Shakespeare’s large body of work through the eclectic mix of objects. It highlights how an historical understanding of the world Shakespeare depicted unearths more meanings to his plays. The inclusion of films performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company compliments the items on display, yet they become repetitive and distracting, taking away from the brilliant performances. While an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s work isn’t needed to enjoy the exhibition, it feels more suited to those familiar with even his lesser known works, as an understanding of these plays would make some objects on display more meaningful.
Overall, the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World is an overwhelmingly vast exhibition replete with interesting artefacts and information. It isn’t just an exhibition about Shakespeare, but a history lesson which allows Shakespeare’s world to unfold around you.