Shakespeare: Staging the World, British Museum, London

4.00

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'