Anyone wondering whether Shakespeare’s plays are relevant today could do worse than visiting a new exhibition at London’s British Museum dedicated to the “Bard,” and, more importantly, the world in which he lived.
Parallels between the works of Britain’s greatest cultural export, his own tumultuous times and the contemporary world run throughout “Shakespeare: staging the world,” which opens on Thursday in the vaulted, circular Reading Room.
Using some 200 objects, many dating from the late 16th and early 17th century, the exhibition seeks to conjure up London as it was when Shakespeare was a dramatist at the Globe theatre at a time when professional playwrights were a new phenomenon. It is part of the London 2012 Festival, a celebration of British culture designed to coincide with the Olympic Games opening in the city next week, and of the World Shakespeare Festival celebrating the playwright through to November.
Among the prize exhibits is the so-called “Robben Island Bible,” a cheap edition of the complete works of Shakespeare kept secretly at the South African jail by political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam in the 1970s. Disguised as a Hindu religious book, Venkatrathnam handed the volume to other prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, one of dozens who signed their name next to passages that resonated with them personally.
The “bible” is opened at “Julius Caesar,” where in 1977 Mandela left his name beside a passage that begins:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
In her blog, curator Dora Thornton wrote of the final exhibit in the show: “Unpacking that book on its arrival from South Africa has been the single most moving part of installing the exhibition for me. The arc from the First Folio to the Robben Island Bible is surely a journey worth taking.”
Also displayed is what is believed to be the only surviving example of a working manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand -- lines from “Sir Thomas More” which he probably contributed to. The play depicts the riots that broke out in London in 1517 directed at immigrants living in the city at the time -- events which have clear echoes with recent violent unrest in the capital and ongoing social concerns.
Sense of unease
The broad sense of unease in England brought on by its split with the Catholic Church works its way into the Bard’s plays and helps explain why “when the times are out of joint we need Shakespeare,” said British Museum director Neil MacGregor. “We are trying to get some of that sense of insecurity, which gives the plays their trenchance and makes them so powerful to us,” he said in a published introduction to the show and accompanying radio series “Shakespeare’s Restless World”.
Among the more unusual artefacts that bring Shakespeare’s London to life is the skull of a brown bear -- bear-baiting, a spectator sport in which dogs would fight a chained bear, rivalled the stage for entertainment 400 years ago. The “Funeral Achievements,” or armour and sword of Henry V, on public display at Westminster Abbey in Shakespeare’s time and written into the prologue of Act 5 of his play “Henry V”, are included.
A small silver cylinder contains the eyeball of Edward Oldcorne, a Jesuit priest executed as a traitor for his alleged involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament. The real-life brutality of that execution is reflected in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” when the Duke of Cornwall gouges out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester. And there is a small gold coin, dated 43-42 BC, made by Marcus Junius Brutus and his fellow conspirators to commemmorate the assassination of Julius Caesar.
It was worn as a symbol of support for the conspirators’ cause, and next door to the “aureus” is a video of Royal Shakespeare Company actor Paterson Joseph holding the coin and delivering a speech by Brutus. The footage is part of a broader collaboration between the RSC and British Museum aimed at matching Shakespeare’s words and characters with the objects on show.
Grouped in themes including Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the medieval past, classical world, Venice and rebellion, they range from giant tapestries and royal portraits to intricate jewellery and everyday items, and span over 2,000 years. “Shakespeare: staging the world” runs from July 19-Nov. 25 and costs 14 pounds for regular admission.