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Arts feature

The play’s the thing

In Shakespeare’s time, say Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, you went to the theatre for your fix of news, politics and entertainment

7 July 2012

6:00 AM

7 July 2012

6:00 AM

History, geography, politics, news, entertainment: the world is at our fingertips, staged before our eyes through the click of a mouse. Before the age of the internet was that of television, and radio before that. In the 19th century, you went for your weekly fix of politics, news, opinion and enlightenment to papers such as The Spectator — its name a nod back a further 100 years, to the first of the great periodicals that emerged from the coffee-house culture of the early 18th century.

According to the influential historian and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, it was in that coffee-house culture of the Whig world of Joseph Addison and his Spectator that a new space for debate was created: the ‘public sphere’. Individuals, albeit mostly male, came together for the free discussion of society and its problems. Debate was paramount and common judgment was sought. Political participation was enacted through the medium of polite conversation. Thus emerged the twin concepts of public opinion and democratic accountability.

One of the big flaws in the argument of Habermas is the insufficient due that it pays to the public theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. Where did you go in Shakespeare’s time for your weekly, even daily, fix of history, geography, politics, news, opinion, enlightenment and entertainment? To the theatre.

The stages of the Rose and the Curtain, the Globe and the Cockpit constituted the first true public sphere. The theatre was the place where you could find out about the history of the world, the formation of your national identity, the customs of foreigners (known as ‘strangers’), not to mention the nature of love and jealousy, rage and melancholy, laughter and despair, grief and joy. It was a democratic space, where by paying a penny at the box office you could stand in the yard, jostle with earls and fishwives, ambassadors and whores, and listen to debates about the nature of power, the quality of mercy and the order of society, debates that just happened to be articulated in the richest and most memorable language ever to pass the lips of an actor.

Christopher Marlowe, pioneer of high Elizabethan tragedy, summoned up the spirit of Tamburlaine the Great wreaking havoc and death as he marched from Scythia to Persepolis to Damascus to Babylon. The imagination of William Shakespeare moved dizzyingly from rural England to Padua, from the battlefield of Bosworth to that of Agincourt, from Verona to Milan. He took his theatre audience on frequent visits to ancient Rome, to Ephesus and Navarre, to an ancient Athens that was also the English countryside. To Venice and Messina. He merged the forest of Arden in his native Warwickshire with that of Ardennes in France. The line of locations stretches out: Elsinore, Windsor, Illyria (which is now Croatia), the battlefield of Troy, Venice again and Cyprus, Vienna, the province of Roussillon in the Pyrenees, Paris, Florence, ancient Britain, Scotland, Wales, sundry outposts of the Roman empire, Egypt, Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, a ship on the Mediterranean sea, Mytilene, Sicily and Bohemia (now the Czech republic), and finally an imaginary island that appears to be simultaneously in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.


Into the plays wander ‘strangers’ from what Coriolanus memorably calls ‘a world elsewhere’. Othello comes from Mauritania in North Africa, Caliban has an Algerian mother, Shylock and Tubal are born of the Jewish diaspora. In Love’s Labour’s Lost we see courtly gentlemen disguised as Muscovites. In Timon of Athens there are dancing masquers cross-dressed as Amazonian warrior women. In The Tempest, we glimpse an airy spirit fetching dewdrops from the Bermudas and a young girl witnessing a ‘brave new world’. Shakespeare’s culture was European and his own travels were, as far as we know, confined to England, yet his imaginary universe extends across the known planet, tunes into a global conversation in which we hear talk of dishes from China and the Patagonian god Setebos, even a whisper of the Antipodes.

His themes are similarly global: the history of nationhood, the legitimacy of rulers, the power of superstition, the clash of civilisations, the respect due to strangers, the lessons of the past and the utopian dreams of the future. Consider what it would be like for his places and his themes, the characters he invented and the ideas he explored to be held together in a single place. Then imagine them brought to life through the evocative power not only of actors’ voices and memorable quotations, but also through authentic objects from his very world — maps and globes, portraits and panoramas, relics and artifacts, precious jewels and common coins, books that he read and a manuscript in his own hand. This is what you will see if you go into the Round Reading Room of the British Museum between July and  November.

You will be able to follow in the tracks of the tourists who swarmed into London 400 years ago, such as the Swiss traveller Thomas Platter who paid a visit to the aptly named Globe, shortly after it opened in 1599:

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.

 A lovely little sketch stuck into a friendship album owned by another traveller, Michael van Meer from Hamburg, shows the kind of water taxi in which Platter would have crossed the Thames.

A German lawyer, Paul Hentzner, witnessed a rougher form of entertainment in a neighbouring arena on the South Bank:

There is still another place, built in the form of a theatre, which serves for the baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs, but not without great risk to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other.

The skull of one of these poor bears survives, its teeth filed down so as to reduce the damage to the dogs.

From about 1590 to 1612, William Shakespeare wrote plays for the London theatre. These dramas of love and death, of youth and age, of political intrigue and cross-cultural conflict were witnessed by travellers from many nations. But they also portrayed many peoples and places, past and present. Shakespeare’s audiences learnt at the play what was happening abroad — or what they imagined to be happening abroad. In  London, 1612, almost a world city, all the world was a stage and the stage was all the world.

The BP exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world opens at the British Museum on 19 July. Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton are the authors of the accompanying BM Press publication of the same name.


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