20 July 2012 by Dominic Lenton
As it turns out, the idea of the period during which Shakespeare was active being the age when 'the world came to London' is an inspired one that has been made particularly topical by events in the week it opened.
Just beyond a copy of the iconic First Folio of plays that opens the show in the Museum's Reading Room, visitors encounter a unique sheet of paper believed to be the only example of a working manuscript in the playwright's own hand. The play isn't one of his best known, in fact it's part of a collaborative dramatisation of the life of Sir Thomas More that was the work of several people.
One of the reasons it's survived is that Tudor sensibilities made it politically challenging to tell the story of a Catholic martyr put to death by the ruling monarch's own father. Despite many revisions the play was never granted a licence to be performed.
What makes it particularly relevant today is that one of the most controversial scenes relates how More, as undersheriff of London, helped to quell the 1517 'Ill May Day' disturbances in which large numbers of people were involved in protests directed against immigrants - what we'd call race riots today. In 2012 meanwhile, the day before 'Shakespeare: Staging the World' opened its doors, the BBC had pulled a film in which accounts of the riots of summer 2011 were recreated by actors from its schedules at short notice.
So there's plenty of food for thought even in the first of the several rooms, each based on the idea of Shakespearean worlds, real and imagined. Within them are more than 190 artefacts gathered from collections around the world and ranging from a gold 'Ides of March' coin minted by Brutus to mark the assassination of Julius Caesar to Henry V's helmet and broadsword. Maps and globes which at the turn of the 17th century were literally bringing the world to Londoners rich and poor are particularly well represented.
The objects - fascinating enough in their own right - are beautifully complemented by 'digital interventions' - brief filmed performances of extracts from the relevant plays provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Engineers may dispute the claim made at the opening curator Jonathan Bate that the Shakespeare brand represents "probably Britain's greatest export", but the huge range of objects shed as much light on how the technologies of transport, manufacturing and shaped Tudor life as they do on his plays. A copy of John Dee's unpublished 1583 treatise suggesting how the English calendar could be reformed shows how even the idea of time and date was an evolving one at the time. And the presence of a 'combined toothpick and ear scoop' recovered by archaeologists from the site of the Rose Playhouse suggests that the anti-social behaviour which can spoil a trip to the cinema is nothing new.
Admission to the exhibition is £14 (there are some concessions) and rave reviews mean you'll probably have to book at britishmuseum.org. This is a show that rewards a little work in advance though; you won't need to plough through the complete works but you'll get more out of it with a little working knowledge of Shakespeare and his environment. Fortunately the BBC Radio 4 series 'Shakespeare's Restless World' which was broadcast earlier this year and focused on many of the exhibits is still available to listen to.
Read all about it...
'Shakespeare: Staging the World' runs until 25 November 2012.
More about 'Sir Thomas More' and its manuscript.
Listen to 'Shakespeare's Restless World'.
Edited: 20 July 2012 at 04:31 PM by Dominic Lenton
Posted By: Dominic Lenton @ 20 July 2012 03:51 PM General
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