Shakespeare. Staging the World. British Museum. 06-09-12

Shakespeare writes with great perception about human relationships and explores ideas which are still relevant and universal, and this makes it very easy to forget what a different world he lived in. The exhibition, Shakespeare, Staging the World, at the British Museum sets out to put him in context and reminds us of a genius that is all the more remarkable, given the society which nurtured it. It shows us objects and ephemera from the time and relates them to the plays, bringing to life things that we only hear about, alongside beautifully produced extracts from the plays by some of our leading actors. Harriet Walter storms her way through Cleopatra’s death speech and I watched person after person who was idly looking into a display cabinet being gripped instead by Anthony Sher’s rendition of “hath not a jew eyes?” It was mesmerising.

I was in there for two and a half hours and the time flashed by.

When you stand in front of a piece of paper which is browned with age and covered with tiny, elegant, flowing script, perfectly placed on the page, and read that it is the only (the only!) surviving example of a working manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand it really does take your breath away.

It was a violent world, where cruelty was part of the fabric of life, an everyday occurrence, whether you were a brown bear whose teeth had been filed down and made to face a pack of violent dogs in full cry over and over again to provide “plasant sport”- these bears were well known and even had names- or an alleged gunpowder plotter who was hung, drawn quartered and boiled in public. Well, mostly boiled. There is one of Edward Oldcorn’s eyes still there to amaze us which was “illegally gathered” at the scene and placed in a silver case with a glass window by a catholic sympathiser so that it could continue to look out at the world. It makes you wonder how they managed to get it………….

There were beautiful objects available to buy for those with money. Venice is celebrated by a wonderful glass ewer, pale and cloudy with swirling spinning patterns running through it. No wonder Venice- and in particular its glass making, was one of the wonders of Europe. A woman’s jacket covered with fruit, vegetables and flowers embroidered with professional skill gives you a glimpse of just how colourful and flamboyant dress could be in a world full of dull brown, green earthy colours. The gold thread and new silk must have been astonishingly bright when it was first made. There is the chance to see the Dunstable swan Jewel, Henry IV’s emblem, a tiny white swan with a gold beak and a gold crown round its neck on a delicate chain.

Sometimes things were kept as curiosities, many objects were being brought back from the far corners of the world and seen for the first time. It was a time of new beginnings and new experiences. A massive narwhal tusk, twisting upwards inside a specially made painted wooden display case, makes you understand why it didn’t seem at all strange to believe in unicorns. Four studies of a marmoset by an unknown German artist are as much little men as monkeys, expressive and human. There are three crystal charm stones which were used for “scarning” (making holy water) which are both beautifully set in precious metal and worth looking at for themselves but also a reminder of how ubiquitous and strange the religious beliefs of the time were.

It is hard to believe that you are actually looking at the very saddle which was described in 1682 as the one Henry V sat on during the wars in France. It was certainly part of his funeral achievements and has been displayed in Westminster abbey ever since that day. Seeing that and hearing one of the great speeches given to Henry by Shakespeare being spoken at the same time is quite something.

There are some wonderful portraits to be admired. Probably the highlight for me was the chance to see Quentin Metsys sieve portrait of Elizabeth I for the first time outside of a book. It is an allegory of virginity, Elizabeth is holding a sieve to recall the roman goddess Tuccia who proclaimed her virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It is the expression on Elizabeth’s face, solemn and still and just a little world weary, which lifts it beyond allegory. She is wearing a rich but restrained black dress and I have a feeling that she is sitting there thinking of time, hard earned wisdom and mortality rather than roman goddesses carrying magic sieves. Metsys has given us far more than was intended. He has reached the woman behind the image in a way that few others were able to do.

One of my favourite paintings has been borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery. Sir Henry Unton’s biographical portrait celebrates his life and shows his birth, work, study, pleasures and travels in a single image. It is touching and almost childlike. There is a fine portrait too of James 1, clearly an intelligent but troubled man who had a lot on his plate and doesn’t look quite happy in his own skin. I was also glad to see the haunting portrait of Richard II from Westminster Abbey again, otherworldly, strange and fey.

Ordinary folk, whose faces are forgotten now, are remembered by an oversized wooden spade and a ceramic watering can which must have been heavy to use.

The exhibition opens with a copy of the first folio, the beginning of Shakespeare’s fame after his death, and ends by reminding us that his genius is for all time by showing Sonny Venkastrathnam’s “Robben Island Bible” open at the page where Nelson Mandela has marked a speech from Act 2 Scene 2 of Julius Caesar as his favourite quote.

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.”

Shakespeare was writing for his own time, describing his own world, but he is also for all time. He didn’t just stage his own world, he is still staging ours.

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