I approached the British Museum’s new exhibition about Shakespeare, ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’,
with a touch of trepidation if not downright doubt. How could an array of objects about Shakespeare add anything to his plays? Did the museum just choose this stock British subject for its summer show in order to benefit from the London 2012 Olympic effect?
Installation view of 'Shakespeare: Staging the World' © The Trustees of the British Museum.
I emerged from the show well and truly put in my place. The curators have devised a wonderful exhibition that, rather than dwell on the life of Shakespeare, uses his plots, characters and poetry as a way to understand the significance of a very wide range of works from the British Museum and other major collections. In other words, Shakespeare’s plays are not the end in themselves but the means to excite the visitor about past objects and their histories. The interpretative material is very careful not to reduce everything down to Shakespeare: narratives particular to the objects soon subsume the stories of the plays.
A room inspired by Macbeth, for instance, uses the play as a jumping off point to examine witchcraft during the Elizabethan and Stuart eras. As one enters the space one hears Macbeth’s three witches in the form of an audio recital by three actresses from the Royal Shakespeare Company (audio and video pieces from the plays are broadcast across the exhibition, interlacing with our experience of the works, and lines of Shakespeare’s poetry are often displayed next to objects). Text panels describe political developments; a succession of ever-harsher legislative Acts during the period made the invoking of spirits punishable by death. We then examine some fascinating witchcraft-related items: a book on demonology, a metal collar and gag to punish accused women, a ‘cursing bone’ through which the blood of a hen would be poured by a sorcerer, and a calf's heart – stuck full of pins – that was used as a charm against witchcraft.
And the show’s scope is international, in a mirror of the plays. Anthony and Cleopatra opens the door of the Classical world, The Merchant of Venice the lives of Italian Jewry, Othello the way Africans were represented in European art. The museum succeeds in sufficiently spacing out these grand leaps of place and time, allowing the audience an accessible tour of global culture in one afternoon, with the Bard acting as a guide.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine