Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

What more can there possibly be to say about Shakespeare?

This was the ignoble thought I carried into the British Museum’s much-hyped autumn blockbuster, Shakespeare: staging the world. Frankly, Shakespeare exegesis suffers from the same paradox as the diet industry. Every commentator ends up saying the same thing, and what they say contradicts what they are currently asking their audience to do: stop studying the theory and take action. Go get on your cross trainer. Go watch the plays. Go live.

Moreover, thanks to this year’s national Jubilympic chest-beating, we’re in serious danger of Shakespeare saturation. The bard is the punchline to every British identity crisis; we may be repressed, recessed and responsible for The Only Way Is Essex, but hey, look, we also produced this.

Staging the world forms the tail end of the Cultural Olympiad’s World Shakespeare Festival, which has spawned a bumper crop of great productions (current stand-outs include The Globe’s Twelfth Night, the National’s Timon of Athens and the Almeida’s King Lear) alongside an overspilling codpiece of related Elizabethan delights, from Branagh’s burst of Tempest at the Opening Ceremony to the sonnets being set to music for the first time.

All of which sets the British Museum a big challenge. How to persuade pomp-weary Londoners that this exhibition will truly enhance their drizzly back-to-school lives? Even the title sounds like the product of a Twenty Twelve brainstorm. “OK folks, let’s take a room in Bloomsbury and oh, I dunno, put the whole planet in it. That’ll be totes amaze.” But for your own sake, don’t be put off. Original, clearly articulated and deeply moving, with Staging the World, they’ve saved the best til last.

Unsurprisingly, this is an exhibition full of words, with specially recorded RSC actor-projections and pithy quotes plastered on the walls.  The space hisses with overlapping voices; the sound of an incoming theatre audience piped through the entryway is a nice touch. But it’s the thinginess of this show that makes it sing. As you encounter the chunk of legend-drenched Hernes oak, the ear scoop excavated from the site of the original Globe, and the spade and watering pot enabling citizens to bring a little patch of Arden into their urban back yard, you quickly discover that these hardy scraps of territory and identity evoke our pre-digital past in a way that timelines and Red Dwarf talking heads cannot.It is such stuff as dreams are made on; phenomenal poetry, a drama of gear.

It is a great tragedy that Shakespeare has become associated with the middle classes, via public school thespians and white-haired audiences. Three of the first exhibits are a 1600s dagger and rapier hauled out of the Thames, the skull of a bear used for baiting outside the playhouse, and a 1603 manuscript showing royal orders to prevent the spread of the plague. Shakespeare’s London was visceral and dangerous, and playhouses were immersed in poverty, cruelty and crime. Curator Dora Thornton has been careful to highlight the political implications of playwriting, too. ‘Kingship, rebellion and witchcraft’, a room dedicated to James I, outlines the “theatrical torture” which drew crowds to a very different sort of stage; in the middle of the room, a small silver reliquary holds the shrivelled right eye of Gunpowder Plotter Edward Oldcorne. Gloucester’s gouging and Shylock’s pound of flesh were no mere metaphors, and our coalition grumbles are cosy compared to stakes as high as this. Browsing the relics of horror and fear, I began to suspect that Shakespeare is no longer the poet of London. His world has much more to say to the Sudan or Pakistan.

Of course, the point of recreating Shakespeare’s world is to hold a mirror up to our own. Moving through the nine sections that make up the exhibition, from Arden to the classical past, Venice to exotic New Worlds, you realise that his was a time of exploding global connectivity akin to our own social media-enabled ‘revolution’. An extraordinary 1596 portrait shows diplomat Henry Unton presiding over scenes from his travels like the star of a giant Pinterest board; Sir Michael Balfour’s friendship album, a little journal of sketches and comments from his Venetian travels, is a beta Facebook. Maps, far from being geographically functional, were controversial political tools, a truth to which Apple and Google certainly still adhere. A golden ‘astrological compendium’ from 1593 combining compass, perpetual calendar, nocturnal, lunar calendar and list of altitudes is the ultimate backpacker’s app. However, the Elizabethan response to these new horizons was not a drive to comfortable homogenisation but a fetishism of the strange. Exotic fabrics, relics and customs became the ultimate status symbols. Even the most jaded Attenborough fan has to draw breath when confronted with the six-foot narwhal tusk hanging on the wall.

But if there is one theme that unites these 190 paintings, maps, books, coins, suits of armour, medals, tapestries, textiles and, well, oddities, it is an assertion of the complex power that physical objects wielded in Shakespeare’s day. A grubby beanie is revealed to be a ‘statute’ cap, which was declared mandatory wear in 1571 to boost a struggling wool industry. The Stratford Chalice, a gorgeous silver communion cup, turns out to be an instrument of social control that forced rich and poor parishioners alike to swallow politically-driven Protestantism. The Glenorchy charmstone, an equally gleaming crystal and silver treasure, is actually a crusading aristocrat’s treasure drenched in centuries’ worth of pagan healing lore. A set of 52 playing cards bearing exquisite illustrations of the counties of England and Wales represents a whole project of British identity-making, as monarchs shuffled their territories in a global game. In the era of IKEA, it is hard for us to comprehend that functional objects such as caps, cups and cards might be so urgently culturally, religiously, politically and socially endowed.

Playing with identity - Swamibu @ Flickr

As Antony Sher’s accompanying audioguide puts it, “magical thinking, beyond any specific belief in witchcraft or the occult, was universal in Shakespeare’s world.” We are not talking here about religion or superstition but about a whole way of seeing reality: an incredibly thin membrane between the physical and the imagined, the symbolic and the sensual. And that membrane is the canvas that Shakespeare’s plays slide across, paint on and puncture. Opening ourselves to it is central to understanding the unique pleasure and power of his words.

If there’s one thing we need as winter draws in, as fourteen year old bloggers get shot and disgraced heroes are stripped of their medals and the exhilaration of the summer fades into bruised memory, it’s a reminder that magic can still be found in the world - even if that world is violent, unjust and unstable to its very core. The British Museum is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in London Calling