A nifty toothpick-cum ear scraper, a hornbook of the sort that Shakespeare might have used to learn his ABC, the eye of a Jesuit priest hung for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, the only piece of text in Shakespeare’s own hand, a striking portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I: just a few of the objects to see in the British Museum’s marvellous exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Visiting London, I was determined to see this exhibition, having enjoyed Neil MacGregor’s companion radio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World earlier this year.  The exhibition’s co-curators, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, have brought together an array of objects, images and curiosities selected for their Shakespearean associations.  It’s a portrait the world that created Shakespeare, and of the world that he created from his imagination.

It’s a vivid glimpse of what it was like to live in London around 1600: a turbulent world where violence stalked the streets while the Crown feared conspiracy and an uncertain succession. Round the corner from the Globe there was bear-baiting and heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered in public.  But this was also an exciting time when mental and geographical frontiers were expanding, with explorers extending the limits of the known world, and trade bringing Londoners into contact with emissaries from distant lands and exotic cultures. As the Museum puts it in their introduction:

The exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. It also explores the pivotal role of the playhouse as a window to the world outside London, and the playwright’s importance in shaping a new sense of
national identity.

Shakespeare: Staging the World shows how a historical understanding of the places, the objects and the ideas with which Shakespeare was familiar can enhance the experience of watching his plays.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
(Henry V, Act I, Scene 1)

Shakespeare, as Jonathan Bate says, probably never left these shores, but ‘he travelled in his imagination’. This exhibition enters his world – both real and imagined. It takes us from Elizabethan London and finishes on Prospero’s mysterious island. Along the way it passes through the pastoral retreat of the forest of Arden, explores the classical world of Greece and Rome that fuelled Shakespeare’s stories, notes how Britain’s identity as a nation was being defined at the time partly by the new mapmakers (and by Shakespeare himself), before coming ashore in places such as Jamaica and Venice that fired the playwright’s imagination.

Brian Sewell, in a review for the Telegraph that embraced both the exhibition and the catalogue (which, he said, ‘should be in every school library in the land. Indeed, every such library should have 20 copies in armour-plated bindings that will survive a century of careless handling. Indeed, I shall go further and suggest that every student of English literature should have his own copy and that the book should never go out of print), wrote eloquently about the places to which Shakespeare journeyed in his imagination:

To London from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare’s only significant journey. For him there was no sitting at the feet of philosophers and theologians in the universities of the Low Countries and Paris; nor was there a Grand Tour to inform his imagination (what would he have made of the hostile grandeur of the Alps?), and what he knew of Italy from Venice to Messina, he knew by proxy from others who had travelled there, or from visitors to London, implied by the British Museum to have been an entrepôt that was at least a match for Constantinople, Venice, Seville and the Hanseatic ports of northern Europe.

He was, perhaps, further informed by maps, a not entirely new source of knowledge and mystery, but one greatly expanded in the 16th century and increasingly available, not just to the rich and educated, but to wider reaches of society. The merchants of once parochial London, through trade with the Far East and the new riches pillaged from the Americas, in Shakespeare’s day ringed the globe with their enterprise and began her conversion into a world city.

The untravelled Shakespeare, enchanted by old tales of Troy and ancient Rome, and by new of Bohemia, Sicily, Cyprus and the Caribbean, imagined the faces and places there, became their atlas and geographer, and dubbed the new theatre of which he was a housekeeper (the Elizabethan term for any owning part or all of a theatre), The Globe. “All the world’s a stage,” said the authentic voice of Shakespeare in the role of Jaques, the philosophical idler of As You Like It; he could as readily have said, “A stage is all the world,” for in his hands that is exactly what it was.

There are so many interesting objects here – some of them I mentioned in my review of the radio series – so I can only pick out a few that caught my attention as I explored the exhibits.  The hornbook (above) was not a book, but a small wooden board with a handle. A sheet of vellum inscribed with a lesson – perhaps the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer – was attached to one side and covered by a thin, transparent layer of horn or mica. They were an important element of  early education in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and on the continent.  Shakespeare mentions a ‘hornebook’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it’s probable that Shakespeare first learned his letters on a hornbook.

And this is what he learned: the exhibition opens (just as it closes) with an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in this case the First Folio of 1623.  It included 36 of his plays – and what always staggers me is that 17 of those had never been published before 1623, being prepared from Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ or working drafts of a play or the prompt-book used by the prompter during a performance of the play.

Wenceslaus Hollar: View of London with the (mis-labelled) Globe Theatre and the Bear Garden

On the wall  the behind the First Folio is a large reproduction of Wenceslaus Hollar’s panoramic Long View of London that serves as introduction to the objects that bring to life the London of Shakespeare’s time.  It depicts the Thames teeming with rivercraft, the rubric ‘eel boats’ inscribed under one small flotilla,  while in Southwark, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is misidentified by the engraver as ‘the beere-bayting house’ – a reminder of the attractions with which Shakespeare’s plays had to compete. Nearby is displayed the skull of a bear, excavated from the mud of the Thames during the rebuilding of the Globe.

The new playhouses, like the bear pits and other low-life attractions, were were situated well away from the centre of town.  Bankside, where the Globe was established, was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. There is a rather jolly print on show, entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ (top) which depicts a well-heeled group being rowed across the river by two boatmen.  Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres – such as a beautiful Italian fork for sweetmeats, a set of dice, a pipe, a piece of oak balustrade from the theatre, and a curious implement designed with a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other – vividly bring to life the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, when the playhouse rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas, brothels and pubs. A rapier and a dagger found in the Thames nearby – possibly dropped by a young man as he got in or out of one of those  Bankside ferry boats – illustrate the extent of violence in Elizabethan London when gentlemen ‘and others of higher degree and place’ were permitted by law to routinely carry such weapons.

Another section of the exhibition reveals how, at the same time as they explored the new world and laid the foundations of empire, the Elizabethans also focused on defining the national identity at home. One way in which this was accomplished was through the vast and detailed mapping of England that was completed under Elizabeth for the first time in history.

Saxton map, Warwickshire, 1576

Several maps made in this period are displayed, including the Saxton map of of 1576 and the Newell-Burghley Atlas of 1564, commissioned by Elizabeth’s first Minister, Sir William Cecil (underlining the point made the exhibition’s co-curator Jonathan Bate in his BBC Radio 4 series Discovery of England that such mapping was a state enterprise designed both to collect data valuable for military purposes, but also to help strengthen a sense of national identity).

Nearby are exhibits loaned by Westminster Abbey that reflect the same national project, and which would have been on public display in the Abbey in Shakespeare’s day.  The playwright would have seen the  funery relics of Henry V – his helmet and sword – inspiring his portrayal of him as the brave, patriotic soldier-king, and written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’.

Just as Shakespeare almost single-handedly built the reputation of Henry V, so, by contrast, did he reduce the standing of Richard III, portraying him as a deformed, incompetent, cruel king. A portrait of Richard III painted by an unknown artist around 1555 illustrates how his reputation was manipulated.  The king is shown with a disfigured hand, evidence of a warped and malign nature, and a broken sword signifying dishonour and the impotence of evil.  Shakespeare’s play reinforced this image of Richard and provided further support for the legitimacy of Richard’s successors, who were also  his patrons.

The exhibition shows how Shakespeare delved into the stories of classical Greece and Rome in order to create plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, that addressed political questions that could not otherwise be safely debated in public: questions of power and authority, legitimacy and succession were explored, but in the context of ancient Rome or Athens.  The relevance of the classical world is powerfully contained in one tiny coin, minted by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the reverse are the daggers with which Caesar was killed and a cap of liberty to symbolise the liberation of Rome from his rule. In one of several video installations featuring actors, Paterson Joseph (Brutus in the RSC’s African production of the play) is seen brandishing the same coin.

Shakespeare was fairly adept at making acute political points about the questions of the day without bringing the wrath of the authorities down upon his head, or losing a play to censorship. In a TV series a few years back, the historian Michael Wood explored the question of whether Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, given that his father left a ‘spiritual testament’ professing his adherence to Catholicism (only found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home on Henley Street in 1757) and had associations with Catholics, both in Warwickshire and Lancashire.  His conclusion was that ‘as one would expect, he was a Christian, but his mind was wide and his scepticism of any system of power was pronounced. … If he retained in his heart a sympathy for the Old Faith of his parents, he kept his cards close to his chest’.

An object which signifies the religious divisions and fears of the time is a silver reliquary said to contain the right eye of the Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne, who was executed for allegedly having played a part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606.  Is this the counterpart of Gloucester’s eye, ruthlessly gouged from his face – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ – by Cornwall in King Lear?

Other objects help us understand contemporary references made in the plays.  For example, Jonathan Bate was fascinated by the fact that Othello, just before killing himself, refers to a ‘sword of Spain’ he keeps in his chamber. What would one have looked like?  On show is a rapier with a long Toledo blade and an exquisitely worked French hilt. And when Caliban in The Tempest tells Stephano he will teach him ‘how to snare the nimble marmoset’, how did that reference jump into Shakespeare’s head? Marmosets were exotic primates recently being brought back from the New World to Europe as pets for princes, and we are presented with a drawing of one.

Could Ariel from The Tempest, be inspired by artefacts of spirits from the pre-colonial religion of Jamaica?  Possibly: the curators have displayed a 15th century wooden figure from the island. Meanwhile (as in the radio series), Prospero’s wizardry is illustrated by magical objects that belonged to the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, including ‘Dr Dee’s magick mirror’, an artefact originating in Mexico some time in the 14th or 15th centuries.

I was much taken with the only surviving example of a manuscript in Shakespeare’s handwriting – an extract from Sir Thomas More, a play to which he contributed only one scene that takes place during the ‘Evil May’ race riots of 1517, in which he has Thomas More, as undersheriff of London, quell riots directed at immigrants living in London with this speech:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another. […]

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

ALL: Faith, a says true: let’s do as we may be done to.

Ian McKellen performs Shakespeare’s monologue from Sir Thomas More

A later section of the exhibition is concerned with Shakespeare’s representations of ‘strangers’ and reflects  encounters he might have had with those from other lands and other cultures.   The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (above), depicts the leader of a delegation from Morocco that came to London in 1600 on a state visit to negotiate an alliance against Spain. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of both fascination and fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare as one of  Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Abd el-Ouahed may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

Alongside this portrait are other representations of black Africans: a beautiful bust of a black African by Nicolas Cordier (a French artist working in Rome) and ‘Portrait of an African Man’ (below) by the Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert. Painted around 1525, it is the earliest portrait of a black African to have survived from the Renaissance.

This part of the exhibition shows how Shakespeare utilised Venice, the dazzling entrepot of his day that drew in and accommodated ‘strangers’ from the Mediterranean lands and beyond, not only in Othello but also The Merchant of Venice. A Sabbath lamp, predating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, is presented as a reminder that, following Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews, it is possible that no Englishman, including Shakespeare, had encountered a professing Jew. However, in London Shakespeare would have encountered Spanish or Portuguese marranos, forcibly converted Jewish immigrants (or their children), people regarded with deep suspicion by the English.

So to develop the character of Shylock, Shakespeare drew on his knowledge of London’s Jews: small, illegal communities of Jewish conversos or marranos who made London a vibrant place for trade and cultural exchange. Out of these scraps of impressions, Shakespeare created Shylock – not as a stranger in a foreign land, but at home in the Venetian ghetto, surrounded by his daughter, servants, friends. In this way, he transformed a stereotypical villain into a believable human being and makes him the focus of  a debate about the nature of justice. Without minimising Shylock’s vengeful  nature, Shakespeare requires us to decide what is fair and what is not, and whether the greater guilt belongs to the one who does wrong or the one who takes revenge on a wrong.

Jewish Venice is represented by a scroll of the Book of Esther in Hebrew, dated 1573, and a balance and coin weights with a collection of gold ducats, of which there just happen to be 30 pieces.  Nearby, on a video screen,  Antony Sher recites Shylock’s poignant appeal for common humanity across the ethnic divide: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ This is one of several superb videos made by the Royal Shakespeare Company that embellish the exhibition, including Ian McKellan performing Prospero’s soliloquy.

The final exhibit is an edition of Shakespeare, covered in Hindu iconography as a disguise.  It is the Robben Island Bible, smuggled into the jail by one of the imprisoned ANC leaders Sonny Venkatrathnam as his ‘bible’ since inmates weren’t allowed any books apart from religious texts. He circulated it amongst his fellow prisoners, inviting them to select a favourite passage and autograph it.  Several marked their favourite passages, and the book is open at a speech from Julius Caesar with the following lines marked:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; 
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, 
It seems to me most strange that men should fear; 
Seeing that death, a necessary end, 
Will come when it will come.

A date and a signature is added.  The date is 16.12.77. The signature ‘NRD Mandela’.

In this video, the exhibition’s curators speaking to a slideshow of the objects on display:

See also

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare: Staging the World

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