Of the items mentioned by the witches in “Macbeth,” there are quite a few that are not on show in the new exhibition at the British Museum, “Shakespeare: Staging the World.” There is no fillet of fenny snake, for example, nor eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat or tongue of dog.
On the other hand, there is the mummified heart of a calf, used as a charm against witches’ spells on cattle in 18th- century Scotland, the lantern allegedly used by Guido Fawkes when attempting to blow up Parliament and the preserved eyeball of a Jesuit priest executed in Worcester in 1606.
“Double, double toil and trouble”: It’s a rich brew of an exhibition and it succeeds in summoning up the material world in which the playwright lived.
Writers and their words are difficult subjects for museums to display. The most dubious exhibits here are screens showing actors performing celebrated speeches (among them Anthony Sher as Shylock and Harriet Walter as Cleopatra).
These stir uneasily like the ghostly portraits of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, and from time to time declaim. As a result, like Prospero’s isle in “The Tempest,” the galleries are “full of noises.” But, as various Shakespearean characters remark, “tis no great matter.”
Otherwise, the exhibition is full of objects and information that put the great dramas easier in historical context. Furthermore, it has a striking thesis: The late 16th- and early 17th-century London that Shakespeare (1564-1616) inhabited was already on its way to becoming the global metropolis that we know -- and constantly hear about -- today.
In the period that Shakespeare was active, the English were already morphing into the British. With the advent of James I in 1603, the first monarch to rule jointly over Scotland and England -- Wales and Ireland already having been conquered by the English -- the kingdom for the first time became united.
Although the formal Act of Union did not come until more than a century later, the exhibition and the excellent accompanying book by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton suggest that Shakespeare moved rapidly from thinking of himself as English to writing about “British” history in “King Lear” and “Cymbeline.” One of the most intriguing exhibits is a draft of six proposed designs for a union flag dating from around 1604 (none quite as nifty as the actual Union Jack).
Shakespeare lived in a society that was split by religious divisions, and edgy about conspiracies and what we would nowadays call terrorism, of which the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the most spectacular example. James I believed that his life had been threatened earlier by storms conjured up by Scottish witches, real-life equivalents of the sisters in “Macbeth.”
By that date, Britain was already in regular contact not only with other parts of Europe but also with much of the wider world. On display are paintings of the inhabitants of the Brave New World of the Americas by the Elizabethan artist John White. The experiences of early explorers fed into “The Tempest,” which is set on a distant island.
The portrait of a Moroccan ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I presents a possible real-life model for Othello. Others lived all around the playwright. Shakespeare’s London was, it seems, already multiethnic. Recent research, quoted in the book, suggests that in Elizabethan London around 900 out of a population of 200,000 were of African descent.
Altogether, this is an intelligent and enjoyable affair. Shakespeare emerges from it as what he somehow always manages to seem -- highly contemporary.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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