Shakespeare: Staging the World – Shaping England’s Identity

Will Shakespeare's play King Lear on stage in the recreated Globe Theatre at London

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances’*

Now open from July to November 2012 the British Museum is presenting what will most likely be one of the key exhibitions of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Shakespeare – Staging the World will be produced in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It aims to provide an innovative perspective on the bard and his plays. London, as it was around 400 years ago, will be brought to life. At the Museum maps, prints, drawings and paintings, arms and armour, coins, medals and other intriguing objects, all intrinsic to the development of the period and its culture, are examined through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. The whole idea of a playhouse as a ‘window to the world’ is explored and how the humble man from Stratford on Avon helped to shape not only England’s sense of national identity, but also that of the English-speaking world.

It was playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who also said ‘we know what we are, but know not what we may become’. He wrote about history, he wrote about romance and tragedy and his ‘comedic’ plays featured morally dubious plots, certainly by the standards of our day.

With the support of major sponsor British Petroleum (BP) from April to November in London The Royal Shakespeare Company is producing a plethora of Shakespeare’s plays, working with playhouses all over the UK as well as working with International Arts Organizations, to ensure that every moment somewhere in the English speaking world a play by Shakespeare will be on offer throughout the year. Attending a show at London’s Globe Theatre, recreated as it was in Elizabethan times, will certainly be a highlight of any Shakespearean event for any Shakespeare fan this year. The Globe was only in use until 1613, when a canon fired during a performance of Henry VIII caught the roof on fire and the building burned to the ground. The site of the theatre was rediscovered in the 20th century and a reconstruction built near the spot.

William Shakespeare English dramatist and poet, born at Stratford-on-Avon is considered in the western world the greatest playwright who ever lived. Since he took the sixteenth century by storm with his plays, his sonnets and his words of wisdom Shakespeare, and his life’s journey, has been subjected to scrutiny on a monumental scale. Who was he? There has been a great deal of conjecture, including a movie claiming that it was really the aristocratic Edward de Vere who wrote his works. Perhaps we will never know the truth of it all. What we do know is that whoever the man was behind the mask he was a true genius.

Muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage

Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum


Read on…

None of the original manuscripts for William Shakespeare’s plays survived so we must rely on printed texts as our earliest sources. The First Folio edition of his plays was published in late 1623, seven years after his death by two of his fellow actors.

The first collected edition of any English playwright, it prints a total of thirty-six plays, many of which would otherwise have been lost to future generations. It includes all of the plays generally accepted to be Shakespeare’s, with the exception of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the two “lost plays”, Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won. Its original price was one pound, the equivalent of about £95–£110 in 2006. Like most books of that time the Folio was sold unbound and buyers would spend another pound or two to have it bound in leather, with their own various embellishments. The Bodleian Libraries a Oxford has an original copy acquired shortly after publication, deacquisitioned and reacquired again in 1905.

Elizabethan theatre and the name of William Shakespeare are inextricably bound together, yet there were others writing plays at the same time as the bard of Avon. One of the most successful was Christopher Marlowe, who many contemporaries considered Shakespeare’s superior. Marlowe’s career, however, was cut short at a comparatively young age when he died in a tavern fight in Deptford, the victim of a knife in the eye. It was during Shakespeare’s age that modern theatre was born and at first gained an unsavoury reputation. London authorities refused to allow plays within the city, so theatres opened across the Thames in Southwark, outside the authority of the city administration.

The first, as we know it, was the theatre built at Shoreditch in 1576. Before this time plays were performed in the courtyard of inns, or sometimes, in the houses of noblemen. A noble had to be careful about which play he allowed to be performed within his home. Anything that was controversial or political was likely to get him in trouble with the crown! Gradually other open-air playhouses opened in the London area, including the Rose (1587), and the Hope (1613). The most famous playhouse was the Globe (1599) built by the company in which Shakespeare had a stake.

Bearing the wordds "EID MAR" (Ides of March) Marcus Junius Brutus' name has become synonymous with treachery for the part he took in the assassination of Julius Caesar, his manufacture of this coin must be considered an astonishing act of hubris. We could say it was a confession as in the Senate he had opposed a coin bearing an image of a living Roman

On the obverse Brutus marks the reason for the murder - the pileus - the Cap of Liberty, the means - the two daggers, and the date EID MAR, Ides of March

The most successful theatre company was Chamberlain’s King’s Men at the Globe Theatre, who worked alongside their in-house dramatist William Shakespeare. It informed the general populace, persuaded, provided and provoked food for thought about love, humour, drama, romance, incest, hatred, secrecy and foul play. It targeted the issues of the day on both the political and social scene, while shaping national identity, ideas and inspiring the opening up of international trade and diplomacy.

The exhibition will cast its connections far and wide through an amazing array of objects that include paintings and rare manuscripts as well as objects.

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man! **

The ‘Ides of March’ coin, a gold aureus commissioned by Marcus Brutus shortly after he led the assignation plot against Julius Caesar in 44BC. Shakespeare’s play on the subject of Caesar’s death is one of his most powerful.

Copy of famous portrait of Abd el Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth 1 University of Birmingham

Then there is a striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I.

This painting depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers who came from Barbary to London in 1600 on a state visit, causing a great impact on the population of London at the time.

The visitors were a source of fascination and of fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and certainly would have been known to Shakespeare: they may havevery well informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

The exhibition will explore theatre-going experience sat the time, very different to that of today. Newly built playhouses in areas like Bankside had a dangerous and notorious reputation. They all had to attract large numbers of playgoers just to survive.

These theatres could hold several thousand people, most standing in the open pit before the stage, though rich nobles could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself.

Performers and their performances also had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers they all came, saw, wept and went.

Theatre performances were held in the afternoon, because there was no artificial lighting. Women attended plays, although the prosperous woman would wear a mask to disguise her identity.

As we found out in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ women were not allowed to perform in the plays, young boys generally performed female roles.

Objects on display will include those excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark area of Shakespeare’s day; a cultural world inhabited by a playhouse, where players and audience were exposed to the bear-baiting arenas, as well as to the brothels and the pubs.

The Elizabethan period was certainly one of England’s most colourful. 1485 marked the end of the mediaeval period, the accession of the Tudors and the dawning of a new and brilliant age and with it the flowering of the English vernacular style.

With remarkable irony, in 1558 Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, who had lived through heart racking years of uncertainty, many in prison or confinement, finally came to the throne at the age of 25, offering her subjects a chance for a splendid future.

During her reign a higher value was placed on political freedom, public spiritedness and free enquiry.  She embraced some of the Italian Renaissance ideals; life was no longer viewed through a vale of tears, but as a quest for enlarging man’s powers and his awareness of God.

Elizabethans became passionate in their exploration of Renaissance ideals. It was an age of visual boldness, not for the fastidious or feint hearted. A sensuous vulgarity and hearty aesthetic appetite is required to appreciate it.  It embraced life and history together, and saw creation as the unity between man and beast It could not be described as “classical’ in the confining terms, which we understand it.

Elizabethan personalities were a paradox; they could love what they enjoyed killing and in contrast lavish affection on beasts and super beasts much like we do on cars and machinery. Death was celebrated with great glory the population at large confused by the change from Catholicism to Protestantism.

She danced with all the celebrities of her day while she fuelled the competition between her nobles.

A keen traveller she liked to check up on her subjects at their cost and historians have suggested she did on purpose to get overambitious subjects into financial difficulties and keep them in control.

Elizabeth 1 was quite a gal. The population adored her as each summer she set off to visit palaces built to divert and seduce her. Her annual Royal progresses combined pomp, poetry, chaos and celebration with at their centre a permanent virgin ruler, with an informed, scholarly mind, who delighted in silk stockings, jewels, flattery, music and above all dancing.

Elizabeth's pirates, Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins

The Elizabethan age was one of adventure and discovery and Elizabeth 1’s favourite pirates, who acted under her approval, were Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake (1542-1596) and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Together they extended England’s possessions in the Americas. The formation of the East India Company in 1600 under a charter from Elizabeth gave them permission to trade in all parts and places in Asia, Africa and America.

Theatre was attended by men and women of all classes and by the end of the 16th century weekly audiences of c15, 000 people attended London theatres.

This meant that two out of every fifteen of the capital’s population were going to the theatre every week viewing plays and entertainments such as fireworks, songs and dumb-shows, prize fights, dances and the antics of clowns and female tumblers, with dog and bear fighting the most brutal.

Children at this time were dressed and treated as miniature adults like the children of William Brooke, 10th Lord of Cobham who was depicted by an unknown artist of tehe British School in 1567. They were regularly flogged for every kind of offence including bad manners and untidiness.

Most parents agreed it was a necessary corrective and the children of the aristocracy were sent away as their forbears had been into service, to schools where cruelty seemed to thrive, only occasionally brought to see their parents, to say grace for them or to read a passage of scripture for them.

Wit was celebrated above knowledge, and was demonstrated by a quickness of repartee and an ingenuity of mind. The chief visual expression was the ‘device’, which was adopted by courtiers as a visible statement of their reaction to life in general.

They had their favourite mottos and symbols cast as brooches and wore them on their hats. An example of a device: a cupid firing arrows at a unicorn. This signified that chastity was under attack by sexual desire. These devices led to a delight in anything ingenious or unusual even if they had no secret meaning

The Elizabethan world had more than a fondness for allegory. The hierarchy within the household was based on natural order the lord at its head. This was not just convenient for those at the top, but considered the right and God-given way of organising men into societies.

These beliefs went back to the Middle Ages and Elizabethans pushed them further than ever before. Their attributes are reflected in all its arts including architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture, design of furniture and textiles as well as fabulous objects.

The Vyvyan Salt, now in the V & A at London, was made in London in 1592-3 exemplifies the belief that complexity can be as virtuous as simplicity; a belief we would find very hard to accept because our aesthetics today are conditioned by the need to economise and also by the loss of the necessary technical skills needed to produce such a work.

The Salt, was a ceremonial object, which would have been placed in front of the head of the household or guest of honour as a container for salt, a precious commodity of the time. Salts were among the most important pieces of metalwork in a Tudor or Stuart household. They could be made in a variety of styles and sizes and use different materials such as gems, pearls, enamels or crystal to reflect your wealth and status.

In this amazing piece made by an unknown maker, glass panels are made of verre eglomisé which is a process in which the image is painted on the reverse of the glass and backed with silver or gold foil to make it reflective.

The basic aim of all Elizabethan design was that there would be ‘None other Such’* as it in existence’ Innovation was all, the aim to be unique not correct!

The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and the performance of his works. The Royal Shakespeare Company will produce a series of new digital interventions, which will appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside objects on display.

William Shakespeare left a fittingly poetic epitaph: “Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, to digg the dust encloased heare! blest be the man that spares thes stones, and curst be he that moves my bones.”

British Museum: Exhibition – Shakespeare: staging the world
Reading Room: 19th July – 25th November 2012

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Watch a Video about The Bodleian Libraries First Folio of Shakespeare


Catalogue: Shakespeare: Staging the World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton

This provides unique and fascinating insight into the early modern world, seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays ‘The playhouse and the role of playwright were relatively new phenomena during Shakespeare’s time, yet his audience spanned from royalty to the common man… Shakespeare: staging the world will show what these audiences were finding out about the world through the eyes of the playwright’ Dora Thornton ‘Shakespeare: staging the world will use Shakespeare’s amazing characters and evocative locations as a way of showing how all the world was a stage, full of dramatic encounters between cultures and nationalities….Shylock is our way into early modern Jewish culture, Othello takes us to Africa and Caliban to the New World.’ Jonathan Bate


*Nonesuch was Elizabeth 1 and her father Henry VIII’s favourite palace
** Julius Caesar, Act V, Scene V, Lines 68 – 75 William Shakespeare

Time to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”
Cole Porter (from “Kiss Me Kate”)

The girls today in society go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides
One must know Homer, and believe me, Beau
Sophocles, also Sappho-ho

Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
Dainty Debbies will call you a dope
But the poet of them all
Who will start ‘em simply ravin’
Is the poet people call
The Bard of Stratford on Avon


Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow

Just declaim a few lines from Othella
And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer

If she fights when her clothes you are mussing
What are clothes? Much ado about nussing
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow


With the wife of the British ambessida
Try a crack out of Troilus and Cressida
If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
Make her tike it, what’s more As You Like It

If she says your behaviour is heinous
Kick her right in the Coriolanus
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow


If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet
They will not give a damn or a damlet
Just recite an occasional sonnet
And your lap’ll have honey upon it

When your baby is pleading for pleasure
Let her sample your Measure for Measure
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow – Forsooth
And they’ll all kow-tow – I’ faith
And they’ll all kow-tow

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