Shakespeare: Staging the World sets out to show Elizabethan England as the ever-changing, volatile setting for the creation of some of the most influential plays of all time. Nowadays, the world is staged for us in newspapers and on television, but for Shakespeare’s audience this happened in the newly-invented commercial theatre; this means that we can hardly underestimate the importance of the theatre in shaping the culture of the 16th century and, by association, contemporary culture. The British Museum uses a wide array of artefacts to show us Elizabethan England in its often slightly grim reality (for example, the case of found artefacts from the Globe theatre, which contains toothpicks and ‘ear-scoops’ – which are exactly what they sound like.) Classical and medieval items are on display too (such as objects from Henry V’s funeral ceremony) to illustrate the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s histories.
The highlight of the exhibition is definitely the opportunity to see the First Folios and the only surviving working manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand. Reading Shakespeare’s handwriting is a surreal experience, as with the mass of cultural hype that surrounds him it can be hard to imagine him as a real man – or at least it is for me. The exhibition approaches Shakespeare from a distinctly historical, rather than literary, perspective – though perhaps that’s to be expected from the British Museum. It does perhaps influence the reading or watching of a play to have a clear historical idea of the culture in which it was written, and Shakespeare: Staging the World provides a very visual, engaging taster of just that. However I couldn’t help feeling that some of the artefacts, despite being interesting in their own right, were really only tangently connected to Shakespeare – for example the Elizabethan clock, hung next to a quote from Romeo and Juliet about the passing of time. How seeing the literal clock would illuminate the quote I don’t know – as Romeo and Juliet isn’t set in Elizabethan England and it’s not as if the original play would have used a clock as a prop on stage – but the use of quotes alongside artefacts is a nice touch.
Overall the exhibition succeeds in bringing the plays to life as real cultural influences, as well as products of history. It ends memorably with a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works owned by political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela – at Robben Island prison in Cape Town. The prisoners have marked their favourite passages with a signature – Mandela’s is from Julius Ceasar:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I have yet heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”