The British Museum pays honour to the Bard with an exhibition that examines the power of his global reach over time
What do a bear’s skull, a preserved eyeball, and Henry V’s helmet have in common? They are all exhibits in Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum. This new exhibition focuses not on questions of Shakespeare’s life and identity, but the relationship between his works and the country, the world, and history. It’s an ambitious exhibition which brings together artefacts which at first glance have absolutely no connection with each other to create an evocation of Shakespeare’s world, rather than providing a narrative of his life and works.
What provides the connections between these seemingly disparate objects are quotes from Shakespeare’s plays written above the exhibits. The exhibits serve as visual prompts for realising the imagery in the playwright’s words, effectively elucidating lines from plays that otherwise may have passed the modern reader by. But there were instances when this device verged on the contrived. For instance, accompanying the quote from Coriolanus that “he watered his new plants with dews of flattery”, was a Tudor watering can and spade. Both of which, I can now tell you with confidence, don’t look so very different from their modern contemporaries as to be of the slightest interest whatsoever.
The exhibition was arranged into themes ranging from Shakespeare’s London, Ancient Greece and Rome, to Venice and Medieval England. This ordering gave coherence to the exhibition and saved it from looking like a jumble sale of early modern bric-a-brac. In addition to artefacts, the exhibition hosted a large number of portraits, both of monarchs featured in the history plays and of figures that emphasised the global reach of Shakespeare’s subject matter. My personal favourite was the oft-reproduced Elizabethan portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, the severe-looking but rather dashing Moroccan ambassador who lived in England with his retinue for six months, and to whom Shakespeare’s theatre company is believed to have performed. He is often cited as an inspiration for Othello, ‘the noble Moor’. And I loved the early modern cultural exchange embodied in a small portrait of an early seventeenth-century English traveller to India painted in the Mughal style, looking at once quite comfortable and quite alien in European dress, against a rural Indian backdrop.
Maps and globes have a large role to play in this exhibition, as it was only in Shakespeare’s time that both England and the rest of the world began to be accurately charted. Indeed, as Dora Thornton, the curator of the exhibition explained, it was only after around 1580 that the word ‘globe’ would have been popularly understood, giving a fuller sense of the novelty in the name of Shakespeare’s playhouse. Particularly striking were the maps and globes of the Americas without full outlines, as much of the North and West coasts had yet to be visited by Europeans.
Throughout the exhibition were projections and screens showing performances of some of Shakespeare’s speeches and soliloquies by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While these were entertaining, they were presented with subtitles rather than sound; I assume because it would be difficult to hear due to the passing traffic of the exhibition. I found myself longing to be able to hear the actors’ voices and wondered if they could not have provided headphones for those who wished to listen as well as watch.
The exhibition culminates in an absolute jaw-dropper of an exhibit which elevates the entire experience from being merely interesting to deeply moving. Displayed is the copy of Shakespeare’s complete works which anti-apartheid prisoners in Robben Island secretly circulated amongst each other, marking and signing their names next to passages that they felt were important to them. The book is opened on the page where Nelson Mandela made his mark, but I won’t spoil the surprise of telling you what the passage is. That these plays written by someone so long ago and so many miles away could still mean something to these inmates perfectly encapsulates the thrust of this exhibition, that Shakespeare has something to say to everyone, everywhere. In this year when the world will be coming to Shakespeare’s London, this exhibition provides something of a reflection of that world.
Shakespeare: Staging the World continues at the British Museum until 25 November 2012. For more information, please visit: http://www.britishmuseum.org.
Artwork by Rukia Begum exclusively for The Platform
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