Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare in Objects: Preparing the Staging the World Exhibition

A drawing of Elizabethan London from Sir Walter Besant’s 1894 The History of London, sourced from wikicommons

From 19 July to 25 November, the British Museum’s round reading room will provide an elaborate exhibition on William Shakespeare as part of the London 2012 festival. The Shakespeare: Staging the World  exhibition is curated by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. In conjunction with the project there will be a book of the exhibition, and you can check out the BBC Radio 4 programme highlighting twenty of the objects from the exhibition, Shakespeare’s Restless World.

Jonathan Bate came to the University of Oxford to discuss the process of creating the exhibition.

Because the exhibit is for the British Museum, Bate and his fellows needed to find a way to approach Shakespeare and his world through physical objects. They wanted to open up discussion about the birth of modernity and globalization using Shakespeare as a starting-point, rather than just offering another biography of the well-known playwright.

“I’ll put a girdle round the earth”

Since people will be flocking to London from all over the globe for the 2012 Olympics, Elizabethan globalization and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was a good starting point.

A 1581 portrait miniature of Sir Francis Drake painted by Nicholas Hillard, sourced from wikicommons

Courtesy of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, the Elizabethan world was forced to acknowledge the world to be not just round, but accessible.  The medal Drake received for his circumnavigation of the globe is just one of the notable objects in the exhibition.

Shakespeare’s plays discuss this new, smaller world. In Twelfth Night,  Maria describes Malvolio’s garish smile, saying, “He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.”

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  Puck announces, “I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.” There is a new awareness in Shakespeare’s plays of a shrinking earth and the revelations provided by Drake’s new map. 

A 1595 world map charting the globe as it was perceived after Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, from the Library of Congress

“It is a sword of Spain”

When Othello has been disarmed at the end of Shakespeare’s Othello, he confides to the audience that he has another weapon that he has “another weapon in this chamber; it is a sword of Spain.” The exhibition will contain just such a Spanish sword.

Historical Spanish swords photographed in the armoury of Alcázar de Segovia by wikicommons user Tirithel

That a Moor of Barbary who lives in Venice, Italy would own such a sword opens up interesting questions about the geography of Shakespeare’s plays. Bate asks what resonance such a weapon would have for Shakespeare’s audience: why did he choose a sword of Spain, specifically?

First of all, Spain produced famously fine swords; Bate described them as “the Prada of Renaissance swords.” However, a Spanish sword also carries associations of the Knights Templar, who engaged in the Siege of Malta, and were the final outpost against the Ottoman Empire and Islamic encroachment on Christian western Europe. Additionally, since a Spanish sword would have been used against the Moors when they were expelled from Spain, some critics see Othello’s use of a Spanish sword to kill himself as his reversion from Christianity to Islam at the time of his death.

Portrait of crusader Godefrey of Bouillon from an Italian frescoe, sourced from wikicommons

In 1600 the ambassador of Barbary famously visited England to discuss the possibility of a Protestant-Ottoman alliance to invade Spain and re-establish Islam, united by their mutual Catholic enemy. Although the plan did not go forward, the ambassador stayed many years, and was known for enjoying plays. His famous presence likely affected public perceptions of Othello and his sword of Spain.

“True to King Richard’s throne”

Though the exhibition will contain a great many pieces, I will discuss one more brought up by Bate in his seminar. The exhibition will include Westminster Abbey’s iconic coronation portrait of King Richard II.

Coronation portrait of King Richard II, sourced from wikicommons

Bate described the painting as the “archetypal image of English kingship”, and Queen Elizabeth I’s professed identification with Richard II raises questions about English monarchs and how they choose to cultivate their own identities. Like Elizabeth I, Richard II engaged in a failed incursion into Ireland. Both faced rebellions, though the Essex Rebellion  through which Elizabeth I lived was unsuccessful. The Essex faction commission a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II the eve before their rebellion, which nearly landed the company into a great deal of trouble. Theatre was used to a political end, as well as reflecting the politics of its day.

The exhibition looks to be an exciting mechanism to explore Shakespeare’s London and the Elizabethan and Jacobean world through contemporary objects. Can’t wait until this summer? Check out the articles, audio, and video on the Shakespeare’s Restless World website.


About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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3 Responses to Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare in Objects: Preparing the Staging the World Exhibition

  1. Chris says:

    Can hardly wait to see the exhibition!

  2. Pingback: Timon of Athens exhibit at the National Theatre | Great Writers Inspire

  3. Pingback: Timon of Athens exhibit at the National Theatre | Great Writers Inspire

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