Back when I was young enough to first encounter a Shakespeare text – it was Macbeth, I think, when I was in my third year of secondary school – it used to frustrate me when people, usually teachers, would say something along the lines of ‘the thing about Shakespeare is, his work is timeless.’
The frustration I felt was borne out of the fact the material I was studying was not, as I understood the term anyway, particularly ‘timeless’ at all. After all, when first presented with Shakespeare’s late 16th/early 17th century prose, deciphering any kind of meaning from it or even following the events of the plays was extremely difficult. Even once a term’s worth of study had allowed me to get to some kind of grips with it, the play didn’t really speak to me, for I couldn’t ‘relate’ to any of the characters, and it seemed their hopes, fears and experiences were completely alien to me. Rather than being timeless, Shakespeare’s works felt very much of a particular time period, and any true love or admiration I would ever have for his plays I felt would first require me to ‘get’ them.
The best teachers I had when studying Shakespeare were the ones who treated the plays more as time-pieces. Since, once I understood a little more about the late 16th/early 17th century world, I could start to see what Shakespeare was really on about. Why, for instance, did so many of his plays bang on about succession and the transfer or power? Because the question as to who would succeed the ageing and childless Elizabeth I was the hot topic of the age in England. Why is there so much magic and reference to magic in so many of the plays? Because people at the time had a very real fear of witches and witchcraft. And why is there such a abundance of violence and deaths in the plays? Because most Londoners in Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with public executions, and probably would have passed the severed heads of various criminals and traitors on spikes as they crossed London Bridge towards Southwark, the capital’s seedy suburb that contained several theatres including the legendary Globe. And so on.
By understanding the world in which Shakespeare was living, and the world he was writing about, I began to understand the plays far better, and actually started to like them. I still maintain that ‘timeless’ is a quality that is often banded about somewhat carelessly by people who just really really like a particular piece of art. And I also maintain that, even if the sheer fact that Shakespeare plays are performed to sellout crowds four centuries on from the Bard’s death suggest a certain timeless appreciation and resonance to his work, I strongly believe that a knowledge and understanding of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean London, England and the wider world, on whatever level, is what truly makes Shakespeare’s plays come alive, especially to a novice.
It was this desire to understand Shakespeare’s time and Shakespeare’s world that brought me to the Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World, and subsequently to the British Museum’s Staging the World exhibition. I arrived a little late on the scene to what was one of the London summer 2012 ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, and as I write this blog there is less than a month left to go and see it. But I strongly urge anyone who, like my 13-year-old self, doesn’t quite ‘get’ Shakespeare, along with anyone with a passion for the plays who just wants to see some wonderful objects that relate to their favourite scenes and characters, to pay this exhibition a visit. I read a couple of reviews of this show that said a prior knowledge or interest in Shakespeare is required to enjoy it, but I think this is entirely missing the point. My prior knowledge was fairly limited and I loved it. And I cannot stress enough that for schoolchildren who are just setting off into the world of studying Shakespeare, and may be in the first few tricky weeks of term trying to get their head round the text, this exhibition will serve them extremely well. My 13-year-old self would have devoured this exhibition, along with the superb accompanying book (which could take many many more hours than the exhibition did!), since it would have made Shakespeare’s world feel a little less alien to me.
I guess the only danger with an exhibition like this is that trying to put together an easy-to-follow narrative is difficult, and trying to draw a line between what is relevant and what is not can be a challenge. As Brian Sewell suggested in his review for the Evening Standard, just about any object in existence could, in some capacity, be placed in some kind of a ‘Shakespeare’s world’ context, or a ‘one-of-Shakespeare’s-plays’ context, and in some ways I feel the exhibition could have served to have been a little shorter and more concise. Needless to say, though, if you don’t mind whiling away most of the afternoon in a museum, there’s plenty to get your teeth into, and the tranquility of the British Museum’s reading room provides a magnificent setting (the sound of a theatre audience taking to their seats before the start of a shakespeare play, recorded at the RSC in Stratford and heard as you first enter the space, is a maervellous touch).
The most interesting objects for me were the ones I had already heard about on Radio 4’s accompanying series, which themselves range from things relating directly to the threaters and theatre-goers of Shakespeare’s London – such as a young man’s staggeringly well-preserved flat cap and a small fork inscribed with an owner’s initials, both recent finds from the archeological sites of old theatres – to things relating to the politics and events of the day, such as the huge dynastic portrait of the Tudor royal family, and a series of sketches attempting to incorporate the red cross of St George and white cross of St Andrew into a single flag, made in the first years of the reign of the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland, King James, but a full century before the two nations officially became one. If you want a whistle-stop tour of the exhibition then listening to the radio series and then looking for the twenty or so objects featured in it is a good way to do it.
Other particular favourite of mine was a gigantic wall tapestry of Warwickshire, the county of Shakespeare’s birth, and a far smaller but just as detailed artefact was the charming set of playing cards each featuring maps on the reverse side showing different counties of England. Both were made at a time when people were becoming far more aware of their own place geographically, and exactly what the nation of England looked like.
The great mass of objects in the exhibition paint a very comprehensive and detailed picture of both everyday life in Shakespeare’s time and, perhaps more interestingly, what kind of things people of the time were talking about, were fearful of, and what people thought about the world. In amongst the objects are RSC actors’ performances of key lines from the plays, projected onto the walls. Different sections deal with different themes that Shakespeare wrote about. There is, for instance, one room that focuses on the ‘alien’ of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Shylock, the Jew, in the Merchant of Venice, or the moor in Othello (also set in Venice). Shakespeare not only created such characters to reflect people’s attitudes towards society’s outsiders, but consciously set the plays that dealt with these issues in Venice – trading capital of the world at the time and fractious hot-pot of different peoples, cultures and religions – as a way of holding up a mirror to London’s own attitudes to all the things that came with being a world city and having different cultures living alongside each other. London in Shakespeare’s day was, as it began to emerge for the first time as a ‘world’ city, becoming more and more like Venice – at least Shakespeare thought so – and any concerns or anxieties that its people had about aliens or outsiders were not going to go away anytime soon.
Another room explores the theme of colonisation, and contains various contemporary drawings of the exotic animals and native peoples that populated the newly-discovered lands and fascinated the English public, at a time when England was just starting to establish a foothold in the New World. Once again, quotes from the relevant play, in this case The Tempest, are heard, as a way of bringing the text to life. And in perhaps the best example of the text and the objects merging into oneanother to dramatic effect, in the section focusing on magic and witchcraft we see King James I’s own book all about the subject amongst a collection of strange magical relics recovered from convicted witches, whilst the sinister cackling of the witches from Macbeth and the sounds of a roaring storm thunder overhead!
What this exhibition does best is give us a understanding of what a fascinating period in English history and wider world history Shakespeare was writing in, and how the english language’s greatest playwright reflected the turbulence, tensions and aspirations of the age in his plays. And, as I said at the start of this blog, understanding this is key to learning how to appreciate Shakespeare’s works as great time-pieces. But then the exhibition went and surprised me, with its very last object. By the exit to the exhibition is a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare that was owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, political prisoner of the South African government on Robben Island during the apartheid era. For more than two decades the words in the book comforted, entertained and inspired Venkatrathnam and his fellow prisoners, among them Nelson Mandela, whose signature and date (16th December 1977) can be seen scrawled in the margin next to his favourite Shakespeare line, from Julius Caesar, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths’. It was hard not to be moved by that. Right then I think I started to understand what all those people who say Shakespeare’s works are ‘timeless’ actually meant. I think I get it now.
Shakespeare: Staging the World runs until the 25th November at the British Museum. Tickets are £14 and can be booked here. Meanwhile the Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World is available to download as a series of podcasts.