Shakespeare puts all the world on stage
THE PREMISE of Shakespeare: Staging the World, an exhibition at the British Museum until the end of November, is to move the playwright into his historical moment. Through the display of maps, clothing and other objects from his world, the exhibition explores the influences on Shakespeare’s imagination and looks at how his work shaped the Elizabethan world view.
One of the initial items on display is the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. Produced seven years after his death, the publication of his plays in folio form was a vital mechanism through which he entered the literary canon. It was the moment at which, the exhibition tells us, “texts originally prepared for stage performance were, at a stroke, converted into literary texts”. After that, the exhibition discards the written word and plunges into history.
The first stop is London’s Bankside, the site of the Globe and Swan theatres where Shakespeare made his mark in the 1590s. The exhibition brings to life the textures, sights and sounds of Elizabethan London: cutlery and tobacco pipes from here suggest the eating, drinking and smoking of theatre-goers.
A rapier and dagger, found in the Thames, opens up myriad connections. The Southbank was a dangerous area and Shakespeare himself was accused of assault outside the Swan in 1596. The display evokes the street-fighting scenes in plays such as Romeo and Juliet. The role of the rapier and dagger as a fashion accessory in Elizabethan England is also stressed.
Other objects are similarly illuminating. The politics of clothing is illustrated by a wool cap from the late 16th century. Clothing was highly regulated and used as a signifier of social standing. During the 1590s every male aged six and over who was not a gentleman had to wear such a hat, so virtually all of the groundlings who paid a penny to attend plays in the Globe would have worn one.
Thus when, in Coriolanus, the people throw their caps in the air in the fourth act, the play, ostensibly about Rome, is rooted in contemporary London.
Shakespeare was writing in a highly charged political climate when ideas about nationhood were being debated and formed. The exhibition shows how he fed into the dominant narrative of England as a protestant, Tudor nation developing under Elizabeth I. Shakespeare made his name through his medieval history plays of the 1590s – the tragedies came later – and Richard III was an example of how a play could act as a narrative of history.
His portrayal of the last English monarch of the Plantagenet line as a villain history, fitted Tudor propaganda, while defining how he was judged by subsequent generations.
At that time England was becoming a world power in exploration, and ideas of nationhood were being formed in relation to a growing global awareness and sense of imperial identity.
Maps played a crucial role in England’s imagining of itself. The exhibition contains the Molyneux globes, the first English printed globes, dating from 1592, which illustrate Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577 and other voyages made by English explorers. Christopher Saxton’s landmark Atlas of England and Wales (1579), one of the earliest modern mapsalso features, while Sheldon’s tapestry map of Warwickshire, woven in the 1590s, is on display too.
The tapestry offers a birds-eye view of the areas around Stratford, including the site of the Forest of Arden which features in As You Like It, and shows how Shakespeare’s regional identity was a constant influence on the writer.