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Shakespeare, Staging the World @ the British Museum: Reivew

The Games have gone. They departed in a flurry of golds and closed with a ceremony that featured what looked like old newspapers but turned out to be Eng. Lit, more Beatles and more fireworks. Caliban’s speech popped up again, this time voiced by Timothy Spall as our Great War Leader (Churchill, not Tony Blair) – and from the top of a Big Ben which had burst open like an over-ripe banana. I did not attempt comprehension.

The closing ceremony may have underwhelmed, but the Olympics seem to have been a triumph. To everyone’s intense relief, there were no disasters. Things were well organized. Brits won lots of medals. Even the sun shined, occasionally. We found we were good at something after all. Hurrah.

It’s a long time since it were possible to win an Olympic gold medal for architecture or flower arranging, but the Cultural Olympiad that complemented the Games has been an equal, if less celebrated success. It has involved musicians, dancers, visual artists, film makers, writers and actors. It also centred on William Shakespeare.

His plays have been produced by amateur companies all around the country, broadcast on the BBC and explored in a mighty succession of talks and documentaries. It has been heady stuff. Highlights of The Shakespeare Unlocked series included James Shapiro discussing Shakespeare’s Jacobean dramas, Joely Richardson on Shakespeare’s heroines and The Hollow Crown which presented Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Stunning.

There was also a sequence of late night talks by Margaret Drabble about Shakespeare and Love on Radio 3, but I’m vague about these as I generally fell asleep after her first sentence and somehow failed to return to them on i-player. Better scheduled was Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World on Radio 4.

These programmes viewed Shakespeare’s world through a variety of objects, revealing what each told us about his life and times. Almost all were fascinating. Some reminded me of things I must once have known but forgotten and some about which I was forgivably ignorant (or about ignorance of which I kindly forgave myself). Some facts it was a delight to discover; others I was stunned not to have heard about before.

In no particular order, it was of interest to learn that theatres were also used to present sword fight shows; that in 1564 (the year of Shakespeare’s birth) a quarter of Stratford’s population died of the plague; that the earliest mechanical clocks only had an hour hand, leaving people to guess what the minutes were doing and that most plays (even tragedies) were followed by music and dancing on stage.

We were also informed us that the embalmed corpse of Henry V’s widow, Catherine de Valois, was displayed in Westminster Abbey – where diarist Samuel Pepys later kissed her dead lips. This sounds gruesome. Did Pepys make the story up? If so, why write about it in a cipher diary he thought no one would ever read? If not, what prompted him to kiss the lips of a woman who’d been dead for more than two hundred years? Either way, psychotherapy might have helped.

The single fact that Shakespeare’s Restless World most stunned me with is that in 1596 Shakespeare was one of four men to attack William Wayte outside The Swan theatre. Wayte later swore before the Court of Queen’s Bench that he was in danger of death or serious injury. Brought before a judge, Shakespeare and his co-assailants had to post bail and promise to keep the peace. The matter was eventually settled out of court.

What staggers me is that we are constantly told how little we know of Shakespeare’s life, yet this extraordinary incident appears undiscussed. How long has it been known? Did academics suppress the story because it conflicts with a notion of him either as ‘gentle Shakespeare’, or the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’? Like many of the few facts we do have, the information is tantalising. Was it a serious assault or a scuffle? Did Shakespeare instigate the attack or was he by-standing? Did William Wayte simply deserve a good kicking? Were all playwrights inclined to violence? Ben Jonson, after all, was sent to prison for murder and Kit Marlowe stabbed to death in a pub fight.

Mention of the incident occurred in Swordplay and Swagger, in which Neil MacGregor discussed a rapier and dagger, found separately on the Thames foreshore near The Globe. In his day job, MacGregor is director of the British Museum and the weapons are on show in the BM’s exhibition, Shakespeare, staging the world.

They are objects of great beauty. And there is an incredible amount of other fascinating material to view. Some of this, such as the portraits of Richard II or John Donne or Henry V’s battle helm is normally on view elsewhere in London. Some of the items, such as Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraving of London (‘The Long View’) were familiar only through reproductions, but much was new to me. One such was the painting (c. 1600) of a Moroccan dignitary with the splendid title, ‘Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, ambassador to England from the King of Barbary’.

His features are proud, sharp and intelligent – and astonishingly contemporary. For while the likenesses of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (a ridiculous, if pretty young man) or the adventurer Captain Thomas Lee (somewhat absurdly bare legged) are trapped in time by their raiments and accessories, the ambassador might still be seen striding to the Court of St James (though he would have difficulty getting his sword through security).

Many of the objects exhibited are sumptuous, such as the wonderful Sheldon Tapestry depicting Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire. These were clearly designed to display their owner’s wealth and taste, yet some of the most affecting items are altogether humbler. There was a delightful, loose-fitting women’s jacket (c. 1600-1625) made of linen, with strawberries, peapods, acorns and honeysuckle embroidered in silk.

Humbler still were a child’s hornbook (which comprised a small wooden tablet with alphabet and The Lord’s Prayer printed on a sheet of paper, protected by a film of transparent horn) and a wooden drainage spade dating from the 1700s. By this we are told that Shakespeare became a keen gardener on his retirement to Stratford. How is this known? First we learn he tried to kill a man outside his theatre, then that he took up gardening in old age. For someone of whom we know almost nothing, this seems quite full detail.

Horticultural pursuits aside, I wasn’t sure how much revelation there was in the show. Instead, what it provided was context. It opened doors into his world. Here was John Dee’s obsidian divination mirror, there a Venetian courtesan, pictured with liftable flap in her skirt to reveal breeches and salacious slippers. In another chamber was a hand written poster (c. 1603-25) that advised of a bear-baiting contest at the Bear Garden, Southwark. Nearby was a bear skull, excavated during reconstruction of the Globe. Its teeth had been filed smooth to prevent it biting the dogs to death in the bear-pit.

All these objects asked as many questions. From what attics and mouldering cupboards had they been retrieved? Who recognized the cow-pat coloured tamoshanter as a ‘statute cap’ dating from the 1570s? How did the playing cards (c. 1590) depicting English and Welsh counties survive? Which men lost their sword and dagger in the Thames and why – and who found them in the mud several centuries later? Most importantly, whose job was it to grind the bear’s teeth and what sort of sedative was the animal given? If it wasn’t sedated, what sort of burial did the tooth grinder get?

I took in the exhibition on my way through London to Wembley to see the Women’s Football Final. Like the football, I was advised to allow 90 minutes for the show. This was insufficient. Hurrying to rendezvous with Ellen and Stuart for the match, I had to rush through several of the latter galleries. Showcases on Cleopatra and Macbeth were almost unviewed and I entirely missed Sonny Venkatrathnam’s ‘Robben Island Bible’. A big regret.
I needed extra time. The final almost went to extra time as well, though in the event the USA beat Japan by a late goal.

It is impossible to know what remnants of our time will survive the next four hundred years. Or to know what sort of people might excavate them. Some of what we leave may seem as mysterious to those in the future as Dr Dee’s obsidian mirror to us. Some things may seem as familiar as the spade, with one similar to which Shakespeare supposedly dug his retirement garden. Yet if whatever is left ends up in an exhibition half as good as Shakespeare, Staging the world it will be a jolly good show indeed. Well done, Games. Well done, Cultural Olympiad. Gold medals all round.

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