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Top Five: Exhibits from Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum

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As the curator of the British Museum BP exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, I would like to introduce you to a range of objects which articulate some of the themes of the exhibition; objects which take the visitor directly to issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences.

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)

The skull of a female brown bear used for bear-baiting takes us in a very visceral way to the cruelty and turbulence of Shakespeare's Bankside. The skull was excavated on the site of the Bear Garden, where bears were baited with dogs and made to fight for their lives in various ways for sport. It was found during the building of the modern Globe, and it demonstrates the way in which the Jacobean playhouse and the bear pits rivalled one another as popular entertainment. Bears had names and were celebrities, like actors; like plays, bear-baitings were advertised on paper bills stuck up on walls--we show one in the exhibition. The violence of bear-baiting, as well as the names of famous bears such as Hunks and Sackerson, fed into Shakespeare's plays as part of the common experience of his London audiences.


Portrait of Richard III with broken sword (Society of Antiquaries of London, 2011)

Shakespeare made his reputation in the 1590s as the author of a series of history plays which helped to shape English national identity. They were written at a time when England was redefining herself as a Protestant state. This portrait of Richard III, the king of England conquered by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1483, is the ultimate Tudor propaganda portrait. The Tudors needed to see Richard as a ruler whose outward deformity expressed inner villainy. In this portrait, painted around 1550, Richard has a raised left shoulder and withered hand in accordance with the kind of propaganda promulgated by Thomas More in his History of King Richard III. Shakespeare finished the work, immortalising Richard as the infamous but charismatic Crookback.


A witch’s cursing bone made of a deer or sheep’s bone stuck into a piece of bog oak (National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh)

Magical thinking was universal in Shakespeare's world, and witchcraft was a crime. Shakespeare's three weyard sisters in Macbeth only touch briefly on the witches of European folklore, as women charged with damage or the threat of damage to people, livestock or property. One of the sisters has just come from "cursing swine" when we encounter her in the play. You used this witch's cursing bone for just that, pouring the blood of a hen through the hollow white bone, holding the oak handle in your hand while uttering a curse. The bone was used in Argyll into the 1900s, but it is an incredibly rare survival of the kind of object and folk ritual mentioned in written evidence at witch trials in early modern Scotland.


Designs for the Union flag of 'Great Britain' (The Trustees of National Library of Scotland)

Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of England. His accession created a new entity, "Great Britain", and James sought full unification of his realms, an aim which was met with hostility on both sides of the border. This sheet of designs from around 1604 for the new British flag shows various ways of combining the flag of St George for England with the flag of St Andrew for Scotland. One of the designs has been approved as likening the two nations to "man and wife". Shakespeare explored these contemporary tensions of unity and division in his Jacobean plays. In Cymbeline, written in 1610, he mentions "Britain" or "Britains" nearly 50 times. The mood at the end of the play is one of peace and promise for the future.

- 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.


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