British Museum Great Russell Street WC1B 3DG To 25 November 2012.
Free Open daily 10am-5.30pm, Fri to 8.30pm.
Full schedule of associated events, workshops, study days, films:
Access handling day for visually impaired, 12 Oct 11am-1.30pm.

Review: Carole Woddis 18 July.

Rich opportunity to view the world behind, and within, the plays.

Working alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company and as part of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 festival, the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world is an absolute treat.

Curated by Jonathan Bate (a favourite RSC academic consultant) and the Museum’s Dora Thornton, the exhibition sets out to trace the political, social and cultural influences working on Shakespeare’s imagination by matching objects with text and recorded video projections.

It’s a thoroughly thrilling combination that not only explains but expands and excites our imaginations.

Here stands a picture of a gorgeously romantic John Donne (1575), hat at rakish angle. Known for his melancholic disposition, Shakespeare may have used him as model for As You Like It’s Jaques. Beside it Forbes Masson reads from the play about “a melancholy of mine own”.

Elsewhere, sections connect London’s – and Venice’s – growing commercial expansion and importance and their reflection through the plays. A handsome portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Elizabeth’s Court reminds us that Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor and Desdemona’s reference to her `Barbary nurse’, had their roots in real contemporary visitors.

Further along, Geoffrey Streatfeild’s rendering of Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach” is accompanied by a note reminding us how Shakespeare’s historical plays helped shape our sense of nationhood. And, when it came to Richard III, propagated Tudor propaganda.

There are gruesome reminders of the butchery in James I’s time, from anti-Catholicism in drawings of the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators and James’ own fear of witchcraft as portrayed through Macbeth. Fascinatingly, a portrait of the real King Macbeth nearby reveals a handsome figure with the note that he and his wife were regarded as good monarchs. Another rewriting of history.

Harriet Walter gives a powerful rendering of Cleopatra’s “I have immortal longings”, while the commentary notes the play’s parallels with Elizabeth’s dalliance with Essex, as it does also in connecting Julius Caesar with warnings about threats and attempted contemporary assassinations during her reign.

Vast in concept and detailed in example, this is a must for anyone with a smidgeon of interest in Shakespeare, the plays and his world.

2012-07-23 01:44:32

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