The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company on this exhibition, in order to make links between the rich array of BM treasures and Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve never been very convinced about the intermingling of video screens and art: people almost always gravitate to the moving image, particularly if words are involved and people featured. Clips of actors rolling out Shakespeare’s lines with every appearance of enjoyment are bound to capture the attention of the audience at the expense of artefacts, which simply don’t have the same drama or human interest. ‘Oh look, there’s Siân Phillips — or is it Harriet Walter?’ is a much more likely cry than ‘My gosh, it’s the eye relic of Edward Oldcorne in its silver reliquary — wasn’t that saved after his execution in Worcester in 1606?’
It is often remarked that so little is known of Shakespeare’s life that biographers and historians would be grateful for even his laundry lists to eke out the sum of real information about him. Traditionally, the way round this has been to deduce biographical detail from his published (fictional) writings, and — more reliably — concentrate on the period in which he lived. This is the approach at the BM’s often beautiful but bewildering show, which tries to evoke several things, including the theatre-going experience of Elizabethan England. Am I alone in thinking that the exhibition, though made up of a great many fine objects, lacks coherence and, ultimately, Shakespearian magic? It is too big, and too prosaic, for all its vaunted and declaimed poetry. What it really needed was a powerful (and fiercely independent) theatrical intelligence to offer a new interpretation of the Bard — as an exhibition, not a memory of plays performed. Instead we are offered a mazy pilgrimage through period artefacts, punctuated by new digital interventions: an unholy and unsuccessful mating of minds.
A vast historical show, a cultural conspectus, I imagine it will be a Mecca for teachers and purgatory for most pupils. How many visitors will make sense of its meandering plan, its pockets of interest and stretches of tedium? Predictably it begins with Wenceslaus Hollar’s famous etched panorama of London, juxtaposed with a musical chamber clock by Nicholas Vallin, a sucket fork and a turned oak baluster from the Rose Playhouse, one of the theatres where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. There are books and manuscripts and the skull of a bear, to remind us that bear-baiting was still a popular sport in 16th- and 17th-century Southwark. (Badger-baiting, though illegal, still occasionally goes on, I gather, among the rougher dens of the East End.) There are a few paintings, including the rather impressive portrait of Sir Henry Unton, by an unknown artist, and the diptych of Old St Paul’s by John Gipkyn (1616).
I particularly liked the silk and wool valance (from the V&A), to be hung around the top of a posted bed, together with curtains. Dating from c.1600–10, it depicts a stylised landscape with castles, and figures engaged in country sports, hunting and loving. Hereabouts there’s also a lovely ash wood drainage spade and a ceramic watering pot, to liven up some botanical drawings. Isaac Oliver’s exquisite but medieval-looking miniature of Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, accords well with a tin-glazed earthenware jug, probably of Southwark make, portraying a melancholy lover. A headdress of red deer antlers and a citole, a guitar-like music instrument, allude to ritual horn dances on the village green. And all these disparate items are (hopefully) stitched together by written quotations from Shakespeare and recordings of actors going about their business.
This multilevel history lesson is rescued by the individual glamour and beauty of some of its components. There’s a marvellous great tapestry map of Warwickshire commissioned by Ralph Sheldon (c.1588), and a tipped-up saddle, which in its intriguing vertical position looks more like a modern sculpture. Another eye-catching painting, this time a full-length portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1594), deserves much more attention than the painting of Venus and Adonis from the Titian Workshop. There are lovely jewels, especially the Phoenix Jewel, a pendant in gold and enamel showing a cut-out bust of Queen Elizabeth I on one side, and a phoenix rising from the flames on the other; and later the vast Lochbuie Brooch, big as a jelly mould. A round flat cap from the early 1500s salutes a cameo of the suicide of Cleopatra from the later 1500s. And there’s a superb red chalk drawing by Guercino of Cleopatra and the asp.
Glass does well, with Venetian goblets and a magnificent Murano ewer with white cane decoration, superbly twisted and patterned. There are scrolls, coins, pilgrim badges (the visitor might well feel deserving of one), a Spanish rapier and a big ‘Bird’s-eye View of Venice’ done in 1611 by Odoardo Fialetti. The embossed silver Moor’s head cup, partially gilt with rock crystal, made by Christoph Jamnitzer in Nuremberg, c.1602, is highly memorable, though not to everyone’s taste. In the crepuscular galleries such objects stand out in their individual excellence, rather than helping to illustrate a theme such as kingship, rebellion or witchcraft; though the latter topic is certainly clearly alluded to in a dried-up calf’s heart stuck with iron pins. Thankfully the Bishop’s Bible of 1569 is close by, and the show ends with another kind of bible, the Robben Island Shakespeare that comforted Nelson Mandela.
The exhibition’s title, Shakespeare: staging the world, is presumably intended to suggest that not only was all the world a stage (perhaps meaning that the whole world, as then known, could be staged), but that the stage was all the world that mattered. A nice conceit. In this age, many of us live our lives more publicly than ever before, on the stage of the world wide web. With virtual reality, the boundaries blur even more, and acting seems to have lost the kind of clarity that perhaps it possessed for those first Elizabethan audiences. Illusion pervades our society from top to bottom and we live mainly by smoke and mirrors. We need Shakespeare, eternally relevant, to make sense of it for us.
The book (of the same name) that has been published ‘to complement’ the exhibition is by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (£25 in paperback) and runs to more than 300 pages, with 275 colour illustrations. It is not a catalogue of the show, and although it does contain photographs of a number of the exhibits, it cannot easily be used as an aide-mémoire of this lavishly packed and complex exhibition. It is designed to be read separately, and I look forward to having the leisure time (one day) to sit down with it for a proper assessment.
In the meantime, as a general introduction to the whole subject I can recommend one of my favourite of Anthony Burgess’s many novels. Called Nothing Like the Sun, it is subtitled ‘A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life’, and is intensely flavoursome and atmospheric. For me, this gives a far more authentic picture of the man and his times than most academic treatments. Burgess also wrote a very readable popular biography of the Bard, though I suspect it has been superseded by subsequent scholarship. However, I still believe that a practising creative writer such as Burgess can offer insights into the life of our greatest writer which a scholar might overlook or never think of. Much as this exhibition, fascinating and ambitious though it intermittently is, fails to give any real idea of the man who was Shakespeare.