Not so very long ago, I explored London to investigate Shakespeare and his impact on British culture. Now, with the eyes of the world upon England – London in particular- for the Olympics, Shakespeare is at the heart of the Cultural Olympiad. Shakespeare: Staging the World is the British Museum’s offering. It makes a certain kind of sense; Britain’s flagship cultural institution and Britain’s central cultural figure together for one amazing show.
Yes, ‘show’ rather than ‘exhibition’ – the whole Olympic effort seems to have adopted the language of the theatre, with one Official Sponsor urging Athletes to #TakeTheStage.
Walking through the darkened corridor towards the start of the show you heard crowd noises as you make your way around the curve of the reading room. Close your eyes, you could be walking around the Globe as a performance is about to start, or even a nervous Elizabethan actor about to #TakeTheStage.
Greeted by the familiar First Folio, you are ushered into Shakespeare’s world. Look up, and you’re almost in the Wooden O of the Globe. You notice a dramatically lit rapier and dagger, if you’re like me, you might be caught up with the sense of theatre and think, could that be a prop?
“Murder weapon or fashion accessory?” asks the label. You smile at the wit and move on to the next object.
But which one? There are certainly lots to choose from. I could go into details about all of them, the curators have certainly chosen well. Their show about Shakespeare’s world is so rich and absorbing it would be easy to spend the whole
day exploring the objects and the stories they have to tell.
All day and all night would be ideal, and when the light starts to fade, reach for Guy Fawkes’ Lantern to guide your way. I admit I was skeptical when I happened upon this object, but the provenance seems somewhat credible; gifted to an Oxford College by Robert Heywood in 1641, the son of a Justice of the Peace who was present during Fawkes’ arrest. The lantern now has Macbeth’s witches muttering and cackling around it, giving it an almost supernatural power.
But what should you really make the effort to see? Swords might not sway you, no matter how dramatically they are lit and how illuminating can a lantern be?
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. Julius Caesar Act II scene II
That’s the passage annotated by Nelson Mandela in the Robben Island Bible – the name given to the only reading material available during incarceration, a copy of the Complete Works. A mass produced copy, but this one has been made unique. Truly inspiring.
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