It was above all in the London playhouse that Shakespeare's generation explored the strangeness and variety of humankind. Shakespeare gave his people, and London's visitors from around the world, a vocabulary and a vision with which they could explore who they were and what it meant to be English, British, or a citizen of the world. I have been working with Professor Jonathan Bate as consultant Shakespearean on both the exhibition and the books which support it, and he suggested that the exhibition should be structured around Shakespeare's real and imaginary locations.
Through the innovative design of the display, visitors will travel through different settings - such as London, the Forest of Arden, Venice, ancient Britain, and the unlocated island of The Tempest as they were imagined in the London playhouse. Each place will have its own distinctive feel and atmosphere. Our collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company allows us to introduce an element of theatricality into the display in evoking "this wooden O" of the London playhouse.
It also enables us to bring Shakespeare's words into the exhibition through digital interventions which our visitors can experience both independently and in juxtaposition with the objects. The aim is to create a dialogue between Shakespeare's imaginary worlds, and the real world as his generation experienced it.
Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, ambassador to England from the King of Barbary (Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Birmingham))
We perhaps underestimate the way in which the world was beginning to come to London in Shakespeare's day. In his plays we see Shakespeare lip-reading an increasingly global conversation, and we see characters moving, trafficking through different countries. Through objects in the exhibition, we can show how cultures came into dialogue. This is the portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Massaoud, the envoy of the King of Barbary (more or less modern Morocco). He came to London with an embassy of 16 Muslims in 1600 to negotiate a global alliance with Elizabeth I against their common enemy, the Catholic Spanish. They stayed for six months, causing a sensation, and were probably the first practising Muslims to be seen in the city. We do not know who painted this portrait, but it is the image of the noble Moor, as distinguished soldier and leader. Figures like ben Massaoud - real Moroccan dignitaries who came to London - informed the imagining of outsiders in the London playhouse. Could he have lingered in Shakespeare's mind when he created the character of Othello a few years later? Shakespeare's theatre of the world fused politics and imagination, distant places and current affairs.
Skull of a bear, excavated from the site of the Globe (Dulwich College, London)
Portrait of Richard III with broken sword (Society of Antiquaries of London, 2011)
A witch’s cursing bone made of a deer or sheep’s bone stuck into a piece of bog oak (National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh)
Designs for the Union flag of 'Great Britain' (The Trustees of National Library of Scotland)
- Dr Dora Thornton
The BP exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World opens at the British Museum on 19 July 2012. Visit britishmuseum.org for more information.