He may have shrugged off this mortal coil in 1616 but it seems that Britain is still in love with Shakespeare. In a recent poll, 75% of British people agreed with the statement:
“I am proud of William Shakespeare as a symbol of Britain.”
In the wake of these findings, this intrepid Museum Explorer took advantage of a rare day off to drag his own Will around London to investigate the impact a certain Mr. W. Shaks-pear, author of Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter and other works, has had on London, Britain and perhaps culture in the larger sense.
Where to start this epic quest? Well, where else than the wooden O? So, it is in fair Southwark where we lay our scene and our story can begin…
In 1599 a new playhouse was opened by the south bank of the Thames. In 1613 it was destroyed by a fire caused by problematic pyrotechnics during a production of Henry VIII. No-one was killed, but a man’s britches caught alight, but were doused by a quart of ale! A new Globe was built in 1614 but closed in 1642 (by Puritans) and is now…a block of flats.
In 1997 a new playhouse was opened by the south bank of the Thames. This is the now-familiar Shakespeare’s Globe by the visionary Shakespearian, Sam Wanamaker. Nearly 400 years on and W.S. is still shaping the landscape of London in the same way he did when we was alive. Interestingly, the original Globes did not have the visible timbering we associate with the Tudor style, but was whitewashed so it resembled classical theatres.
The new Globe also occupies an interesting place in cultural space; it’s a theatre, but also a museum. Surprisingly, this combination works as the museum below adds context to the theatre above and vice versa; historical contexts adds to the literary enjoyment. You discover more about Elizabethan theatre, about how plays were published and even that Queen Elizabeth I issued a Royal Order banning blue ruffs (do they clash with red hair?*) but about Will? Little is on offer.
“What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend,”
I’m sure the conspiracy nuts would read something into this…
The next stop on our little pilgrimage was to the National Portrait Gallery. “What an odd destination,” you may think, “why on earth have they gone there looking for the Bard?”
The answer, is elementary, my dear Reader. For you see there is a special portrait here. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the gallery in 1856, a gift from Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere – the Chandos Shakespeare. Here is an image of it from google:
It is the only portrait of Shakes that can lay claim to being drawn from life. Look at it closely. Freud was surprised by the swarthy Latin features he saw in the face.
Our third and final stop on this tour of Shakespeare’s legacy in London is the British Museum. Where there stands a statue of Shakespeare, sculpted just 100 or so years after the Bard’s death. We can see in such a short time how he has been deified not just by actors (such as Garrick, who posed for the work) but also artists (like Roubiliac, who made it) and others who have been moved by his words. Unfortunately, only a bust was on display.
Someone once said that British culture is inherently more literary than visual; we hold writers in higher regard than artists. I think that’s not necessarily true, but it is hard to think of anyone else – writer or artist who has had a bigger impact than Will.
Interestingly, whilst live-tweeting my experience using #ShakespeareDay the only venue to interact with me on this level was the Globe (@the_Globe). By engaging with me in a way that was beyond the traditional method, my visit was made all the more memorable. By asking me what I liked and what I learned, the museum makes their visitors feel valued and they, in turn, gain valuable feedback on what works for them and what doesn’t.
*It turns out that blue was associated with debauchery at this time. Queen Liz 1.0, the Virgin Queen, would not have wanted herself to be seen as debauched by wearing blue. A big thanks to Greg Jenner for this fun fact.