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Shakespeare: staging the world - British Museum

Shakespeare: staging the world

Exhibition preview

DURING the summer of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the British Museum is presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare.

Supported by BP, Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival in the London 2012 Festival.

The exhibition, on display in the Round Reading Room from July 19 to November 25, 2012, provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.

The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad.

One of the key innovations of the period was the birth of the modern professional theatre: purpose-built playhouses and professional playwrights were a new phenomenon, with the most successful company being the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men at the Globe, who worked alongside their house dramatist, William Shakespeare.

The exhibition shows how the playhouse informed, persuaded and provoked thought on the issues of the day; how it shaped national identity, first English, then British; and how the theatre opened a window on the wider world, from Italy to Africa to America, as London’s global contacts were expanding through international trade, colonisation and diplomacy.

The exhibition creates a unique dialogue between an extraordinary array of objects – from great paintings and rare manuscripts to modest, everyday items of the time – and the plays and characters that have had a richer cultural legacy than any other in the western world.

Among the objects linked to Shakespeare and his works is the Ides of March coin, the gold aureus commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; a plot in which he was a key figure and the subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers from Barbary who came to London in 1600 on a state visit.

The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of fascination and of fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare: they may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

The exhibition also explores the theatre-going experience at the time, which was very different to that of today. The newly built playhouses were situated in the suburbs: Bankside 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.

Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, the cultural world inhabited by the playhouse, which rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas as well as brothels and pubs.

The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance.

The Royal Shakespeare Company will produce a series of new digital interventions which will appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside the objects on display.

The arrival of the Games to London in 2012 provides the opportunity to reflect on how the world came to London four centuries ago, and how Londoners perceived the world when global exchange and other aspects of modernity originated.

An accompanying publication will be available from April 2012 by British Museum Press: Shakespeare: staging the world, by Jonathan Bate and
Dora Thornton.

Shakespeare: staging the world Gallery

Tickets: £14 plus a range of concessions – available on 020 7323 8181 or online at www.britishmuseum.org.

Times: Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 5.30pm, Fridays from 10am to 8.30pm.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG