The London Olympics spawned a cultural festival to accompany the sporting event and as you might expect, Shakespeare is at the centre of it. As well as performances in the theatre and on TV, you can experience Shakespeare’s London and more at the British Museum, which is currently hosting its “Staging the world” exhibition.
Rather than concentrating exclusively on artefacts associated with the man himself, the exhibition takes a more imaginative approach, aiming to show the many influences at home and abroad which Shakespeare drew on to create his world within the ‘wooden O’ of the Elizabethan stage.
So although the exhibition rightly opens with the magnificent First Folio – an unprecedented collection of works – it also includes the ‘Robben Island Bible’, the collected Shakespeare that Nelson Mandela and his colleagues hid and were able to read while imprisoned by the apartheid regime. And while there’s a marvellous 1590s tapestry map of Warwickshire, showing details right down to the Rollright stones and small cottages in the Forest of Arden. There’s also a German-made cup in the shape of a Moor’s head which shows the exoticism with which non-European peoples were seen at the time – and which might help show how Shakespeare saw Othello.
Another play also gets illumination of an odd sort. There’s a ship model from Leith, made as a thank you offering by James VI after his escape from a storm in the North Sea which he put down to witchcraft. And there’s Doctor Dee’s magic mirror, in fact an Aztec mirror of obsidian. It’s all rather spooky – the three witches could definitely have used it!
We see the theatre too. A ‘sucket fork’ illustrates how the London playgoer of the time entertained himself while being entertained, and there’s a bear skull reflecting the association of playhouses with bearbaiting.
This isn’t necessarily an exhibition for the pedant. For instance, there’s no way Shakespeare could have seen the Moor’s head cup, and no similar objects are known in England (though there were plenty of ‘Saracen’s Head’ pubs). But that’s not really the point. What the exhibition does is show how Shakespeare inhabited a city that was at the centre of expansion and emerging as a world city. Drake was circumnavigating the globe and there was even a Moroccan ambassador at Elizabeth’s court.
By showing the wide variety of objects that it does, this exhibition shows both Shakespeare’s real workaday world and perhaps more importantly his imaginary world – the sources of his extraordinary creativity.
Of course there’s one thing missing. Although the exhibition shows the First Folio, words on the page are not really what Shakespeare is about. There are video highlights – but again, that’s not real Shakespeare; it’s not live and it’s not the full 2 or 3 hour experience of a story from start to end.
For that you’ll need to head to the Globe, where you can experience both the environment of Elizabethan theatre and some really great acting.
This is not a cheap exhibition, with standard tickets at £14. But I’m happy to point you to a good deal – afternoon tea at the Montague on the Gardens together with your exhibition ticket for £35. The tea is ‘best of British‘ and includes a beetroot marinated salmon sandwich, as well as savoury cheese muffins and coronation chicken as well as the obligatory scones, jam and cream. All in all, I think that’s a pretty good offer and handy since this boutique luxury hotel is right behind the British Museum.
Photo credits: Montague on the Gardens Hotel.