The exhibition we went to on Sunday was one of the two currently on at the British Museum – this one was the Shakespeare related one & it’s on till mid-November.
Shakespeare was actually the context for this exhibition not the subject. So his life (1564-1616) and works were the background to a collection of objects that told us about the people who came to see the plays, and the things that were going on in the world around him that informed his choice of subject matter.
The exhibition itself felt very information dense (in a good way) – a combination of history lesson, insight into the way the people of the time thought of the world around them, insight into the ideas the plays were trying to convey, excerpts from the plays to listen to (and watch) and lots of paintings to admire.
I wasn’t expecting the large number of paintings, and they were a highlight for me. In particular the iconic image of Richard II (in the room focusing on the history plays) which I’ve seen many times in books but I don’t think I’ve seen the real thing before. Another one which especially caught my eye was the diptych showing old St Paul’s Cathedral – on the back of the left painting was James VI & I processing to church, then the left panel showed the Bishop preaching to the crowd in front of the King & Cathedral, and the right hand panel showed the Bishop’s vision of a restored Cathedral with angels all around. The spire of the Cathedral had been damaged some time prior, but we know with the hindsight of history that it wasn’t ever replaced and in fact old St Paul’s itself was replaced after the Great Fire of London (1666) with the current cathedral designed by Wren. In the painting one detail that amused me was the words coming from the angels’ mouths were written forwards or backwards depending which way the angel was facing!
And many more paintings, I think part of why I took quite a while to go round the exhibition was because I kept stopping in front of paintings to admire them 🙂
The first couple of rooms concentrated on the audience & the city of London, and after that each room focussed on one of the themes running through the plays – for instance the natural world (Shakespeare was, after all, a country boy) or the history of the country (England in earlier plays, Britain in later). Each of the themed rooms had one or more excerpts from a relevant play read by a well known actor (most also with a large video screen of the actor doing the reading). And each of these was also worth standing and paying attention to (increasing the time we spent in the exhibition – J actually had to go back in on Monday to finish it off!).
This era of English history is part of the time period I’m most interested in (roughly Wars of the Roses through to the Civil Wars), so I was already familiar with the broad sweep of events. There were still lots of interesting bits & pieces I wasn’t aware of before (like how it was fashionable to be “melancholy” – goths existed even then 😉 ). And it was good to see the actual objects. Of the non-paintings some of the highlights for me were the very fine embroidered jacket, the model ship that James VI & I had made to give thanks for not being drowned by witches, an exotic cup set in the shape of a head (you lifted the top of the head off which made one cup and the bulk of the head was another – really quite odd). Also nice was to see the objects that had been featured on the radio series that was on Radio 4 before the exhibition opened (Shakespeare’s Restless World).
Retail: We’d picked up the book of the exhibition earlier this year when there was an extra discount for BM Members at one of the Open Evenings. After seeing the exhibition we didn’t really have time to browse the souvenirs (and forgot to go back & look on Monday!), but we did buy ourselves a copy of the RSC edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (which is annotated & has essays on the plays too).
Stuff I should know more about: Shakespeare’s plays! Hence the book purchase above – I do know the rough plots of most of them, but hearing the excerpts in the exhibition made it clear how I don’t know enough about the details, and I enjoyed listening to the words.
Other places: Dinner at Wagamamas then off to Islington for a No-man gig (of which more another time).