Shakespeare: Staging the World, British Museum, London


The Bard's glorious, grisly, world springs to life. Verily, it's a triumph!

The skull of a bear that died in a baiting session – the dog tooth marks still visible centuries later – is just one reminder that in Shakespeare's world the division between civilisation and savagery was far slimmer than today. Now, newspaper headlines fret about gun-toting gang culture, but in the first Elizabethan era few educated gentlemen were to be seen without a rapier and dagger, and – as the exhibition commentary reminds us – they were ready to fight at any provocation.

For the great paradox of Shakespeare's legacy is that while we remember him through his words, it is his ability to convey the visceral as much as the cerebral aspects of life that preserves him in our cultural bloodstream. This beautifully curated exhibition gives us enjoyably idiosyncratic access to the different worlds that informed the vision that he presented at The Globe, but the aggression that shaped them is never far below the surface.

Copies of the Bard's complete works open and conclude the exhibition, and the final one (known as The Robben Island Bible because it was shared between imprisoned ANC activists) is annotated by Nelson Mandela and others. There is also, tantalisingly, the only surviving example of a manuscript in Shakespeare's handwriting, which is the closest the exhibition gets to the scholastic minefield of his identity. This extract from Sir Thomas More, which he co-authored, reveals a neat, looping hand, meat for amateur and expert graphologists alike.

The display encompasses real and imaginary worlds. It starts in London with a 1647 map where the main features are St Paul's Cathedral, London Bridge, the Tower of London, and the Globe, amusingly mislabelled as a bear-baiting house. In many ways this map functions as a metaphor for our relationship with the Bard's world. While the names are similar, they evoke different architecture: St Paul's is in its pre-Wren incarnation and spireless, and London Bridge, groaning under a cluster of buildings, is the only Thames crossing. Shakespeare: Staging the World cleverly shows how a historical understanding of the places and things that Shakespeare knew peel away layers of meaning in his plays.

The most grisly of these objects is a reliquary containing the right eye of Edward Oldcorne, a Jesuit priest who was executed because of his (highly disputed) connection to the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth one year later, and "the Scottish play" can be read in part as a direct warning of the gruesome end that can come to regicides. Macbeth is also, of course, a demonstration of how the Bard used both historical and mythical worlds to displace political messages that would have been unpalatable in acontemporary theatre. A section on the classical world shows how the affair in Antony and Cleopatra parallels aspects of the romance between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. (As well as burying the allusion in mythologised history, Shakespeare waited till Elizabeth was safely dead to produce it.)

Paintings that form a dialogue with the Bard's world include a gilded medieval portrait of a magisterial Richard II that conflicts starkly with Shakespeare's picture of the flawed monarch. By contrast, the stern gaze of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud – the Moroccan ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I – suggests a source for the playwright's concept of the noble Moor Othello.

No exhibition could properly evoke Britain's greatest cultural export without reminding us of the rhythm and impact of his language. Luckily, the British Museum's collaboration with the RSC means that filmed monologues from his plays (with actors including Antony Sher, who also narrates the audioguide, and Paterson Joseph) resonate around the displays, while managing to be unobtrusive.

This is a triumph of detail and invention, both impressively scholastic and beguilingly playful. The exhibits may be in glass cases, but they provide a vivid conduit to the Bard's multi-layered universe.

'Shakespeare: Staging the World' (020-7323 8181) to 25 Nov

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living