(British Museum, until 25 November, £14)
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
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)
Beneath this highly appropriate quote - the exhibition is once again in the circular Reading Room - the British Museum kicks off its summer show, Shakespeare: Staging the World. Its ambition is to bring Shakespeare's London to life; to enable visitors to understand the allusions in his plays as his contemporaries would have done; and to gently remind tout le monde, who have descended upon London for the Olympics, that England isn't all about sport.
Even though I'm a bit of a Bardophile, I make the mistake of looking at Shakespeare's plays as texts, rather than as expressions of a living, vivid, turbulent world. When I watch Romeo and Juliet, or As You Like It, or The Merchant of Venice, I focus on the world that Shakespeare is creating, rather than the world that created him. And that's where this exhibition provides a really interesting counter-balance. To live in London circa 1600 was to be in a world that was still finding its feet: a world where violence and conspiracy seethed beneath the surface; where you could take in a play after having been to the bear-baiting; where heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered and their co-believers gathered up their relics; where explorers pressed back the limits of the known world, bringing home stories about countries that most ordinary Londoners had never imagined even existed... What this exhibition does so well is to take evidence of these times and to show how they might have inspired a Stratford grammar-school boy to write some of the most famous plays of all time. (N.B. For any pro-Oxfordians who might still be reading this blog in the wake of my scathing comments on Anonymous, the argument stands for whoever wrote the plays.)
It begins with some scene-setting and an introduction to the world of the London playgoer circa 1600: an oak baluster from the Rose Theatre; pocket-sized dice, with which an idle audience member might have amused himself in the interval; a curious implement designed as a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other; and a sword and dagger. Thanks to the Wallace Collection's exhibition on rapiers, I was already aware that it wasn't wise to walk the night-time streets of Elizabethan London. The weapons displayed at the entrance of the show were dredged up out of the Thames, perhaps thrown there on some dark night to conceal a crime. If you take the multimedia guide, you can study them while listening to the swaggering braggadocio of the young men who might have carried them: 'Do you bite your thumb at me sir?' This is what I enjoyed so much about the show: it not only introduces you to objects that characterise Shakespeare's England, it directly relates them back to the language of his plays.
|A woman's jacket embroidered with|
floral designs: photo from here
It is a great exhibition, but not perfect. Initially I liked the idea of having recorded performances throughout the show: it would be the ideal way to tie Shakespeare's words to the themes highlighted in each room. Sadly, it quickly became very distracting. Perhaps my nerves are just particularly frail, or maybe I was moving around more slowly than everyone else and so suffered more, but the excerpts were quite short and on a relentless loop. Much as I love the ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech from Henry V, I began to feel rather agitated when, for the seventh time in ten minutes, the disembodied head on the wall began to proclaim, ‘This day is call'd the feast of Crispian’. I was absolutely unable to block the words out as I looked at the other exhibits in the same section. It might have been more effective to have the performances recorded on the multimedia guide, so that people could listen to them when they wanted and as many or as few times as they wished, without disturbing anyone else. The problem is that, while background music can be really effective in setting a scene, as it was in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, background talking tends to monopolise my attention. Which probably proves nothing except that I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper.
To those who might be tempted to see this as just another 'safe' exhibition, dealing with a period of history that is dead and gone, and which might appeal to bluestocking history fans but not to the chic contemporary-art-gallery-going crowd, I would say this. The story of Shakespeare's London, Shakespeare's world, is not that different from the story of our own times. A nation ruled by a Queen Elizabeth, where Ireland and even Wales resent English rule and strive to keep their own identities, where street violence erupts between young men who feel they have something to prove, and where religious tension crackles in the air... Doesn't that sound like somewhere we know?
I should spare a word for the catalogue, which is extremely good (and I say that without having read it all yet!). For those who can't see the exhibition, or who want to learn more, it offers an excellent insight into the social and intellectual mindset of the age, with good illustrations of all the exhibits. It's also beautifully designed, with page numbers and title headings printed in a typically 'Shakespearean' font, and plentiful quotations. I shall be devouring it in full before I follow the footsteps of those playgoers four hundred years ago, and head off to the Globe in a couple of weeks, to savour my own slice of Elizabethan England.
So: is all the world a stage; or is the stage the world? Discuss...