Shakespeare puts all the world on stage
Ireland gets a mention in the exhibition, which suggests that the Nine Years’ War between 1594 and 1603 involving Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell, was the backdrop against which many of the history plays were written. One work on display is a 1594 painting of Captain Thomas Lee, who served in Ulster. It is replete with ambivalence – the incongruous image of a bare-legged Lee adorned with the luxurious clothes of the English courtier, hints at a colonial who has gone native. There is also a portrait of the Earl of Essex, the favourite of Elizabeth, who was executed for treason with Lee. Noting that Henry V was written in 1599, the year of Essex’s campaign in Ireland, the exhibition suggests that the play expresses hope for victory in Ireland as it compares Essex to the victorious Henry V returning from France: “In good time he may, from Ireland coming, Bringing rebellion broached on his sword.”
The Irish wars involved mass conscription and the sight of soldiers going or returning from Ireland would have been a familiar one, eliciting deep public sympathy.
The exhibition gives prominence to the role of James I, and the influence of the Scottish king on ideas of national identity. In 1603, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, James VI of Scotland became James I of England following the death of his cousin Elizabeth, marking the first major step in the union of England and Scotland. The shift in the notion of national identity is captured in Shakespeare’s terminology. While in the history plays he used the term “England”, plays written for the court of James I, such as Cymbeline, use “Britain”. A 1604 design for a proposed British flag, combining the flags of Scotland and England, is also on display.
Shakespeare’s troupe performed for the court on many occasions, and James I’s influence on Macbeth, the “Scottish play” is explored. The themes of witchcraft, conspiracy and regicide reflect the insecurity and paranoia of James I’s reign. He was obsessed with the threat to his position particularly from Catholic forces, something that appeared to have been borne out with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The inclusion of the three witches in Macbeth is a nod to James, who wrote Daemonologie, on witchcraft, in 1597, and presided over the Berwick witch trials. The king’s obsession with proving his lineage and legitimate succession – his mother was the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded by order of Elizabeth I – is also dealt with in the play and exhibition. John Leslie’s 1573 map of Scotland depicts the genealogy of the Scottish monarchy and shows James I as the heir to Banquo and Fleance. This opens a new perspectives on Shakespeare’s inclusion of the characters of Banquo and Fleance in Macbeth — the witches’ premonition that Banquo’s descendants will be king can be seen as a way of allaying concerns about James’ legitimacy.
The exhibition ends with The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, set on an imaginary island in the New World. It has a curious sense of placelessness as it explores the cultural encounters between Europeans and the unknown “other”.
But as the exhibition makes us remember, The Tempest, for all its geographic wanderings, was ultimately performed in the aptly-named Globe in London. His final play, like no other, reminds us that Shakespeare’s achievement was to allow theatre-goers to forge ideas about the wider world.