It’s getting trendy these days for museum exhibitions to examine the world that famous historic figures would have seen. ‘Dickens and London’ which ran at the Museum of London earlier this year for example was an excellent portrayal of the Victorian capital, timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author.
And now the British Museum has got in on the act, quite literally, with ‘Staging the world’, a new exhibition charting the world that William Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have witnessed.
It was Shakespeare’s generation that pretty much invented commercial theatre. And at ‘Staging the world’ objects like the money boxes used to collect the admissions from early patrons are on display alongside forks they would have used to eat sweet foods during performances. Then there are also fascinating paintings that show people travelling in boats to the south bank to catch a play.
But this major exhibition, part of the World Shakespeare Festival, goes much further than just London and looks at a world which was opening up through exploration. On display, for example, is the medal awarded to Sir Francis Drake in 1589 after he became the second person to circumnavigate the globe. We also see prints of the first English ambassador to Mughal India – an appointment paving the way to future western domination of the continent.
England was importing luxury goods at the time of Shakespeare, there are vases on show from Ottoman Turkey for example, but London was seen as pretty ordinary in comparison to the rich, cosmopolitan city of Venice. Travellers wrote about the fine architecture and wonderful Venetian glass.
Back in England, life was anything but calm as religious strife ravaged the country. The transition from Catholicism to Protestantism was messy, a subject which is well presented at the British Museum’s exhibition. I was fascinated, for example, by a pedlar’s case which a travelling Catholic priest, in disguise to avoid being rounded up and executed as a traitor, would have used to carry religious items as he preached around the country.
You can also see prints depicting the conspirators of the so called Guy Fawkes plot being executed in St Paul’s churchyard and even a religious Catholic relic containing one of their eye balls.
Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written as histories, but to many that is what they are – so space is given over to how the Medieval and classical worlds were perceived at the time.
Of course you couldn’t have an exhibition about Shakespeare’s world without some attention given to the playwright himself, so we get objects that belonged to him and his family, including a garden spade! We also hear about his love of the countryside, particularly his native Warwickshire.
All in all, ‘Staging the world’ is another great special exhibition from the British Museum with well chosen and well lit objects that assembled together present an illuminating insight into Tudor and Jacobean society.