As 2012 comes to an end, with the world mired in an economic morass, one thing we can reflect on with pleasure is the 2012 English summer with its highly successful Olympic Games and Paralympics (where the Olympic bell was inscribed with a quote from The Tempest). Accompanying those international sporting events in London was the World Shakespeare Festival where people came to London from all around the world to participate in a feast of Shakespeare performances.
Although Shakespeare was an Englishman, born in the Midlands and with a career in London, and never going to any other country, he is claimed by the world. One is often surprised to hear about performances of his plays in very remote and primitive-seeming places. They are usually adapted for the cultures of those places but nevertheless, the fact of their existence shows that four hundred years after his death Shakespeare is much more than an Englishman and a Londoner: he is a man for all seasons and all places on Earth.
When we think about Shakespeare’s life and day-to-day existence we are normally thinking about the streets and inns of London, the theatres and other places of entertainment, and the customs and practices of the Elizabethan era in England. But as part of the 2012 celebrations the British Museum mounted a wonderful exhibition – Shakespeare: Staging the World – that revealed something much more far-reaching. Using clothing, maps and several artefacts from the world of his time the exhibition explored the influences on his creative imagination as he read books, newspaper items, travel reports and everything he could about the world then forged the settings of his plays from them. The exhibition went even further, demonstrating Shakespeare’s influence in shaping the Elizabethan view of the world.
During Elizabeth’s reign England was becoming an imperial power as her navigators explored the globe. English people were becoming increasingly aware of their place in the world and developing a sense of imperial identity. Maps featured prominently in the Staging the World exhibition. The first printed globes, the Molyneux globes, dating from 1592, were on display. They illustrate Francis Drake’s and other explorers’ circumnavigations of the globe.
The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from Medieval England, through Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan Warwicksire, and to the places like Venice, Rome, Vienna and more, where he set his plays, and ends with the magical fantasy island of The Tempest.
The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was how the huge number of artefacts provided insight into Shakespeare’s creative imagination, and how he obviously researched and used his findings to make his settings and provide local colour. The artefacts included maps, domestic objects, military weapons and paintings, many of which seemed to refer directly to specific images in the plays. There are fashionable clothes mentioned in the plays, eating and drinking utensils, and to mention only two very specific references, in the exhibition there was a sword with a Toledo blade and an exquisite French hilt. Just before killing himself Othello refers to the ‘sword of Spain’ that he keeps in his bedroom. As we read the text our eye glances over that but those who attended the exhibition had the chance to see exactly what Shakespeare had seen and used in his portrait of a Renaissance military general.
Shakespeare obviously read and listened keenly to accounts of experiences in the New World. In The Tempest Caliban refers to ‘the nimble marmoset.’ Marmosets are cute monkeys that were brought back from the New World by explorers as gifts for their sponsors. There was a contemporary drawing of one in the exhibition. Somehow or other Shakespeare saw such a drawing or heard a description of its nimble movement and he used it, insignificant as it was, in the making of local colour for that play.
The compilers of the exhibition are to be congratulated for making such a contribution to Shakespeare’s great year of 2012, and giving us further insight into the workings of his imagination.