Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare – Open House London

Garrick's Temple to Shakespeare
Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare

On the Sunday of the Open House London weekend, I headed south again to visit Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, created by David Garrick for his hero William Shakespeare. Born in Hereford and raised in Lichfield, Garrick moved to London and became the most well-known and acclaimed actor of the age. In 1754 he purchased Hampton House, now Garrick’s Villa, overlooking the Thames at Hampton.

Garrick's Villa
Garrick’s Villa

His riverside garden was laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and this octagonal Palladian temple was built in 1756. The temple has a dome and eight Ionic columns, making it similar in style to the temple at Chiswick House.

Bust of Garrick
Bust of Garrick

From the temple, Garrick gave money and cakes to poor children every year on May Day. He also used it for entertaining friends such as Dr Johnson, as well as for writing and storing relics to Shakespeare. Eventually he had a tunnel constructed to enable him to reach the temple from his house.

Inside the temple
Inside the temple

In 1758 Garrick commissioned a life-size marble statue of Shakespeare from the eminent Huguenot sculptor, Louis François Roubiliac *Garrick may have posed for this himself). The original version had ‘veins’ across the face, a characteristic of the marble; Garrick insisted the head was replaced. The original statue is now in the British Library; this version was given to the Trust by the British Museum.

Shakespeare sculpture
Shakespeare sculpture

The temple eventually fell into disrepair until the late 20th century when the local council and several charities raised funds to restore the building and lay out the gardens again. It is now managed by the Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare Trust, and contains copies of paintings from major galleries plus original 18th century prints and engravings about Garrick. It’s open on Sunday afternoons throughout the summer months and occasionally you can attend concerts here, too.

Garrick on stage
Garrick on stage

FACTS

Address: Hampton, Middlesex, TW12 2EJ

Website: garrickstemple.org.uk

Opening Hours: Sundays 2-5 March-Oct (check the website for exact dates/times)

Price: Free

The Play’s The Thing – Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford upon Avon

I’m a frequent visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I was excited to learn about their new exhibition, The Play’s The Thing. This new permanent exhibition covers “100 years of theatre-making in Stratford-upon-Avon.”

For a short time the exhibition contains the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. The space also displays a First Folio, dating from 1623.

The exhibition is full of costumes and props from the RSC’s history, which I loved looking at, although it made me think of all the productions I’ve missed over the years. For a more hands-on experience, you can also explore the ‘Director’s Desk’, try on virtual costumes (and some actual hats) and learn more about the history of theatre-making in the Company.

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Trying on a hat

I had lots of fun in the exhibition. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £5 for 16-25-year-olds, and £4.25 for children and disabled people. You can convert your ticket into an annual pass so if you visit the RSC often, you can go back again and again.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and a number of significant events are taking place all over London to mark the occasion. The British Library‘s most recent exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, tells the story of the playwright via ten significant events.

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The 1590s was a transformative decade for Shakespeare. He was established as an actor and playwright by the age of 28 or so. The exhibition displays a copy of the First Folio, put together by John Heminges and Henry Condell, without which around eighteen plays, including The Tempest and Macbeth, might have been lost. It is displayed alongside the famous portrait by Martin Droeshout; though it was made from an engraving made after Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson said it was a good likeness.

A number of other books are also displayed, including Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) that referred to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow”: Robert Greene may have been angry he was so successful without having gone to university.

Shakespeare’s first known published work Venus and Adonis (1593) is on display here, as is a volume by Francis Meres. Wit’s Treasury, which praised Shakespeare. We also see a fragment of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore from the early 1600s, part of the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. From here, the exhibition is divided into sections according to the event they cover.

1. A hit, a very palpable hit
The first Hamlet at the Globe, about 1600
Based on the Norse folk tale Amleth, Hamlet (the first quarto of which, different from and much shorter than the longer First Folio version, was published in 1603) marked a step up from previous tragedies. The title character was played by the acclaimed actor Richard Burbage. This section of the exhibition contains a map of London by Visscher, a modern-day poster about the play (“Everybody Dies”), and a human skull owned by Sarah Bernhardt, given to her by Victor Hugo and used by her in performance. There are recordings of nine Hamlets from John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh to Herbert Beerbohm Tree and David Tennant, and a portrait of Richard Tarleton, Elizabeth I’s clown, the possible model for Yorick. We see a portrait of Richard Burbage (and his 1619 epitaph), and views of Elsinore and Kronborg castle, as well as a letter about the burning of the Globe in 1613.

2. Into something rich and strange
The Tempest at Blackfriars Playhouse, about 1610-11
The Tempest was written within few years of the King’s Men taking over the indoor theatre at Blackfriars. From 1609 onwards they played at Blackfriars in winter and the Globe in summer. Shakespeare wrote plays making full use of this intimate space, including masque, spectacle and candlelight. Documents on display include some relating to the sale of rooms at Blackfriars in 1596, and objections from locals feeling that the plays would attract undesirable persons (unlikely, as the prices were much steeper than at the Globe). We see a lute, like those used in the indoor playhouse, and the rewritten version of The Tempest by William Davenant in 1667 to make the most of the spectacle. There is a prompt book from Charles Kean’s elaborate 1857 production, and props from Derek Jarman’s 1979 film, as well as filmed scenes from The Enchanted Island by the Met Opera from 2011, and an Ariel costume from 2016.

3. The wide world
Possibly the first Hamlet outside Europe, 1607.
The first Hamlet is widely believed to have been performed on an East India Company ship off Sierra Leone in 1607, although only a fragment of the diary of Captain Keeling, who wrote it down, survives. A model of a similar style warship, complete with levels, hatch and a rear exit, is on display.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays toured to Europe in the seventeenth century, particularly Germany, and often featured clowns. Not everyone was a fan. Voltaire in his The Ruin of the English Stage in 1733 said that Hamlet was “the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage”. Tolstoy wasn’t a fan either, but Goethe was, and David Garrick helped to establish an English theatre in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The displays include excerpts from the puppet show Der Bestrafte Brudermord by Hidden Room Theatre 2015 based on a German version of Hamlet, and photos from a Soviet production of Macbeth, as well as the first Chinese translation of Shakespeare, a version of Tales from Shakespeare in 1903. The plays had different titles: The Two Gentlemen of Verona was known as Proteus Sells Out His Close Friend for Lust (not a bad description, I reckon). There were also references to West Side Story and Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film Bobby.

4. Do you not know I am a woman?
A woman acts Shakespeare for the first time, 1660
When Shakespeare was first writing his plays, women were not allowed on stage, and all of the female roles were played by men. This changed after the Restoration when Charles II took the throne and issued a patent legitimising female actors. Edward Kynaston was one of the last men to gain reknown playing female roles from the 1660s; Thomas Killigrew’s theatre patent of 1662 established the rights of 1660 and confirmed “women’s parts… may be played by women”.

Women, even royals such as Anne of Denmark, traditionally appeared in court masques but the first woman to appear in a Shakespeare play – probably Anne Marshall – played Desdemona in Othello in 1660. Different female actors, such as Elizabeth Barry, Jane Lessingham, Elizabeth Younge, Sarah Siddons (one of the first women to play Hamlet) and Ellen Terry were able to develop their careers. This part of the exhibition also includes Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume.

5. ‘Tis mad idolatry
A Shakespeare forgery at Drury Lane, 1796
In 1795 law clerk William Henry Ireland ‘discovered’ a number of Shakespeare manuscripts, including Vortigern, later performed at Drury Lane and ridiculed. These forgeries (displayed in their 1796 editions) were one aspect of the industry that began to grow up around Shakespeare. In 1769 David Garrick established the Shakespeare jubilee celebrations in Stratford, which were sadly rained off. This section includes souvenir medals, examples of Shakespeare’s signature (including the Blackfriars Gatehouse mortgage deed from 1613), a poster for the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love and a copy of the play Shakes Versus Shav by George Bernard Shaw, which includes the first mention of the term “bardolatry”.

6. Haply, for I am black
The first Black actor to play Othello in Britain, 1825
At first, white actors such as Edmund Kean (who played the character as a light-skinned North African) used burnt cork to darken their faces to play Othello. The first black actor to play Othello in Britain was Ira Aldridge, an American actor who successfully toured the UK and Europe, using white makeup in order to play “white” characters. Laurence Olivier played Othello in 1964, and I was shocked to discover he refused to allow African-American actor Paul Robeson to come over to play him. Nowadays, of course, non-white actors routinely perform in Shakespeare and it’s hard to imagine this not being the case; this section of the exhibition was a sobering reminder that this state of affairs is actually quite recent.

7. He is return’d
Shakespeare’s King Lear restored to the stage, 1838
Nahum Tate’s 1681 version of King Lear turned it into a romance with a happy ending. William Charles Macready finally performed as Lear in Covent Garden 1838 using the original ending. The original Lear play existed as King Leir, and the story appears in Hollinshed’s Chronicles. This section of the exhibition includes pictures from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a Japanese version of the story, and information about A Thousand Acres, the film of Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel based on the tale.

8. The revolution of the times
Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play often encumbered by dramatic scenery: as an example, Oliver Messel’s design for the 1937 production is on display, as is the headdress worn by Vivien Leigh as Titania. In contrast, Peter Brook’s 1970 production set the action in an abstract white box designed by Sally Jacobs, and there are lots of photographs and designs from the production and tour to look at.

9. The wheel is come full circle
Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night, 2002
This production, starring Mark Rylance (who has contributed costumes to the exhibition), recreated the music, costume and cosmetics of Shakespeare’s time with an all male cast. This part of the exhibition focuses on the desire to return to original practices that began with William Pole in the nineteenth century and came full circle with the reconstruction of the Globe that began in the 1990s.

10. Look here, upon this picture
The Wooster Group Hamlet, 2013
The final part of the exhibition focuses on the Wooster Group production of Hamlet, which made use of the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton which was shown live from the theatre – the first time a Broadway show had been filmed for a cinema audience. It also contains clips of the Laurence Olivier Henry V of 1943.

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This is a fascinating, thorough exhibition, full of exciting artefacts and interesting information. Ideal for any Shakespeare or theatre fan.

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis – Senate House Library

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Senate House Library

On my day off I headed to Senate House Library for their contribution to the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations: Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, an exhibition which uses the famous “Seven Ages” speech from As You Like It to explore how Shakespearean scholarship has changed over the years. As a librarian, Shakespeare-lover and bibliophile I was very happy to see that the exhibition consisted of several rare and beautiful volumes.

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The entrance to Senate House Library has been transformed for the occasion, with a Shakespeare design adorning the steps. Before you even reach the exhibition, there are posters all around, each exploring a different aspect of the history of Shakespearean scholarship.

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Once you get up to the exhibition, there are some fascinating works to see. Gallery One, ‘The Infant’, explores the influences on Shakespeare and features Holinshed’s Chronicles and the works of Chaucer. Gallery Two, ‘The Schoolboy’, features early quarto editions of some of the plays, including Othello. Other galleries explore the history of Shakespearean scholarship and performance, including the adaptations performed by actors such as David Garrick. In the search to create an authoritative text various sources were used and there were conflicts between scholars. The twentieth century was especially good for academic Shakespeare studies: the first Oxford Complete Works was produced in 1891 by William James Craig, a forerunner of the modern Oxford Shakespeare series edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor from 1986.

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The final gallery, ‘The Superstar’, looks at Shakespeare in the digital world and invites exhibition attendees to make their own contribution, sharing on Instagram or Twitter.

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Shakespeare: Metamorphosis runs until mid-September, but if you can’t get to London, or want to explore the topic further, you can view an online version. The University of London’s Shakespeare microsite will remain up for the foreseeable future, a valuable resource for fans and students of the Bard.

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Digging Shakespeare’s Shoreditch: Excavating London’s First Theatreland

St Botolph's Church Hall
St Botolph’s Church Hall

Fascinated as I am by the theatre of Shakespeare’s day, I signed up for a talk by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) who are responsible for excavating the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres in Shoreditch. The talk was given by Heather Knight, who is in charge of the excavations, and was incredibly interesting. The location for the talk was St Botolph’s Hall on Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street station: this was an appropriate location, given that the site of the Curtain Theatre is nearby; also, member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men William Kemp was supposed to have begun his ‘Nine Days’ Wonder’ (he morris-danced from London to Norwich) from St Botolph’s Church. Ironically, the rector of the church was not impressed with the theatrical goings on of the day, and wrote a critique denouncing such activities.

Knight, whose team’s excavation of the Curtain Theatre is ongoing, spoke about what archaeology can add to our understanding of Shakespeare and the theatrical environment in which he worked. Unlike many significant cultural figures, we know relatively little about Shakespeare’s life and don’t have much in the way of items belonging to him. It was in the nineteenth century that research first began into his life and the Elizabethan theatre. We know that Shakespeare lived at different times on both Silver Street and Bishopsgate; we know that Shoreditch had a reputation as a place of fun; and we know that theatres were concentrated in two different areas surrounding the City of London: the north, Shoreditch (the Theatre and the Curtain), and the south, Southwark (the Rose and the Globe).

Archaeological research has already taken place at the Rose, part of the Globe and part of the Hope, all south of the river. However, research into theatre in the Shoreditch area began less than a decade ago, when a desk investigation was commissioned in 2007. Sample trenches dug revealed part of the Theatre, which was the headquarters of the Chamberlain’s Men managed by Richard Burbage. They discovered that the Theatre was 22m in diameter, with 14 sides and a tiled roof, not unlike the Globe, though the Theatre building also made use of the old medieval bakehouse and bathhouse that used to be part of the monastery.

Props were found on the site: bells and other costume ornaments and props, such as the end of a scabbard. At this time there was a law against people wearing clothes above their station, but this was waived in the case of actors belonging to a licensed troupe. Going to plays, therefore, was often the only way ordinary people could get to see these beautiful clothes close up. Hampshire border ware was found frequently, though one piece was particularly unusual, having the face of a bearded gentleman complete with a ruff (he looks a bit like Shakespeare). A cannonball was also found, several years after a similar one was found at the Rose – these are believed to have been used for sound effects such as thunder. The discovery implies a kind of “theatrical arms race”, as Knight put it, between Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, and Richard Burbage, owner of the Theatre, as they sought to introduce the most cutting edge special effects. The team also discovered something else about the site of the Theatre: after the playhouse closed it may have been taken over by an alchemist, as assorted seeds were found on site, and an upturned jug was discovered in the floor, as well as a piece of pottery in the walls symbolising good and evil in the defence of witchcraft.

The Curtain theatre, named after Curtain Place on which it stood, was nearby, owned by Henry Longman in the 1580s; he was still running it in the 1620s. A desk assessment was carried out on a portion of the supposed site as late as 2011; trenches were dug and walls discovered. Recently it has been confirmed that the theatre, 30m by 22m, was rectangular in shape, rather than the rounder shape of the Theatre, the Globe and the Rose. This is exciting news, but not as out of the ordinary as it might seem: the first Fortune Theatre in London was square, and some Spanish playhouses of the period were also rectangular or square. However, the news sheds a new light on the play Henry V. If, as is believed, that play premiered at the Curtain, then the prologue (“can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France? or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt?) makes no sense, so perhaps it was added later, when the play was performed at the Globe. Interestingly, a 1578 French visitor to London wrote about the differences between the Curtain and the Theatre, remarking that one was particularly magnificent. Unfortunately, he didn’t actually state which one, but Knight suspects that he was referring to the Theatre, as it had what would have been a more unusual polygonal shape, with the Curtain being more of a traditional European theatre type.

At the Curtain site, fragments of a bird whistle have been found, which may have been used to emulate the lark in Romeo and Juliet. In later years the building was adapted, with a floor of animal bones in place around 1630. Excavations are still ongoing, but the absence of evidence can be as interesting as its presence. For instance, no money pots have been found, as were discovered at the Rose, suggesting that perhaps the Curtain was a building for hire rather than the home of a company.

The site of the excavation is now called The Stage, and there are plans to build a visitor centre around the remains of the theatre. It may be the last playhouse MOLA get to excavate, which in many ways is sad, but at the same time they have done some brilliant work that they can really be proud of. Work on the Curtain and Theatre has hugely added to our understanding of the theatrical world of Shakespeare’s time, and I feel very lucky to have attended this talk and heard about it first hand. I look forward to hearing more about these groundbreaking excavations.

Tudor World / The Falstaff Experience

The Stratford upon Avon museum known as Tudor World and The Falstaff Experience is an “interactive museum” all about the town where Shakespeare grew up. It explores life in the Tudor era and looks at where Will may have got some of his inspiration. I popped in last time I was in Stratford to pass some time in between seeing some plays.

The museum is hosted in a Grade 2 listed building on Sheep Street, in the centre of the town. Known as the Shrieve’s House and Barn, it is the oldest lived-in house in Stratford, and used to be home to an inn run by William Rogers who was supposedly the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

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The Shrieve’s House and Barn
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Informative plaque on the wall
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Entrance to Tudor World
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Visiting

Tudor World is great fun and very child-friendly, with plenty of grim and gruesome exhibits and a “guide” in the form of a young pickpocket who pops up on information boards as you go around. The museum contains a lot of wax figures and other props which I found pretty atmospheric and creepy. There are even “smell-boxes” that let you smell what the deck of a ship or the inside of a pub would have been like! The “Falstaff Experience” part of the museum is a room with a very detailed inn replicated: it is possible that Shakespeare visited the inn and gained inspiration for his character of Falstaff.

As well as being open every day of the week (except Christmas Day) between 10.30 and 5.30, the museum is often open in the evening for ghost tours or ghost hunts (including overnight ones). Occasionally plays are performed in the Courtyard. Admission costs £5.50 for adults and £3 for children, with a family ticket and discounts for concessions available. Well worth a visit on a rainy day, with or without children.

A Winter’s Tale

It was very cold this weekend. I seriously regretted not taking my gloves when I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I enjoyed the performance, but spent all my time outside with my hands clasped close to my body trying to keep them warm.

On Sunday I managed to tick off some more Underground stations: I stuck to the west, beginning with both Edgwares and ending with Bayswater.  I visited the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising near Portobello Road, which consisted mainly of product packaging from the Victorian era to the present day. Some of the adverts were (unintentionally, I presume) very funny, but I loved the Victorian perfume bottles – I wish you could still get bottles like that.

I went to see Les Miserables at the nearby Odeon in Whiteleys shopping centre, and as I had expected, it made me cry. Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman were both excellent, and though Russell Crowe wasn’t great I didn’t think he was as bad as he had been made out to be.

Theatres in pubs – the best of both worlds

Pretty much all theatres nowadays have bars, but here in London a surprising number of bars or pubs have theatres. There’s the Tabard Theatre in Turnham Green, the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town, and the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in the pub of the same name in Honor Oak Park, south London. It’s a bit out of my way, but I’ve visited three times in the past few weeks. The first time was for a performance of some of my favourite playwright, Chekhov’s, short plays while my most recent visits have been to see some Shakespeare.

One of my ambitions is to see every Shakespeare play performed, but this is tricky when most companies stick to the famous ones like Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was thrilled when I got the email from the Brockley Jack announcing that a new company, Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn, was going to produce The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Two Noble Kinsmen under the heading of ‘Bookends’ – Shakespeare’s first and last plays*.

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I enjoyed both performances (I reviewed them here and here) – Shakespeare’s plays are so well known that it’s rather refreshing to see the more minor productions, when you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen. I like the Brockley Jack pub too. I’m a bit funny about drinking in pubs by myself, but this one has a nice atmosphere. Not to mention that the beer is only £2.70 a pint.

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The Tempest is generally thought of as Shakespeare’s last play, and it is his last solo-authored effort – The Two Noble Kinsmen was likely co-written with John Fletcher.

Shakespeare: Staging the World – British Museum

Alongside the Olympics this year, the World Shakespeare Festival is taking place, with many events occurring in London that I’ve been able to take advantage of. The British Museum has got in on the act, with an exhibition called Shakespeare: Staging the World. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I found out about it. Luckily I work fairly close to the British Museum so was able to pop there on Friday night after work – they are open late so it is the ideal time to go if you work all week but want to avoid the weekend crowds.

While I think it’s a huge shame that the famous Round Reading Room has been hijacked as an exhibition space, I do think that the staff and curators have done a good job in assembling an absorbing and well laid out exhibition. The first thing I saw as I went up the stairs was a copy of the First Folio under glass – I’ve seen this on display before but it’s always exciting to see it again. The exhibition began on a comparatively small scale, examining late sixteenth century London with a famous panoramic view of the city on display and an assortment of objects recovered from theatres of the Tudor era, including toothpicks, coins and pipes. I picked up an interesting snippet of information about the origins of the word ‘groundling’ (used to refer to spectators standing in the pit, both in Tudor times and at the modern Globe on Bankside) – it was, apparently, a fish with the habit of “lying on the bottom of the river, gazing at the surface with its mouth open”.

When I originally heard about this exhibition, I was surprised that it was being held in the British Museum. Surely the British Library would be a more appropriate showcase for an exhibition on the most famed English-speaking writer in history? However, I soon began to realise that I was wrong. The exhibition is much more concerned with objects, and what they convey about the world in Shakespeare’s time, than books and literature per se. Many of these items come from the extensive collections held by the British Museum, and others have been borrowed from other museums and galleries. Among the items on display were an assortment of portraits and maps, objects from far-off lands (including a lamp from Calabar, now Nigeria, and a picture of the ambassador from Barbary, now Morocco), and the helmet and sword believed to have been worn by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt (on display in Westminster Abbey until the 1970s).

After setting the scene in London, the exhibition moves to consider the wider world. In Shakespeare’s day, explorers and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake were discovering more than ever before about the world beyond Europe, and Shakespeare was able to make use of this knowledge in several of his plays, including The Tempest and Twelfth Night. As well as discoveries about Asia and the Americas, Shakespeare also used inspiration from closer to home, such as the Forest of Arden near Stratford-upon-Avon, which he used to memorable effect in As You Like It.

The exhibition explores how and why Shakespeare set his own plays in alternative worlds in order to comment more freely on his own society. I found this section particularly enlightening. For example, the history plays were written with Elizabeth I in mind: there’s a reason why Richard III was portrayed as an angry hunchback and Henry Tudor as the noble, rightful ruler. Henry V portrays a warlike nationalism that might have encouraged contemporary society to feel similar pride in their Englishness, particularly given the ongoing war with Spain. Other plays, such as Julius Caesar, deal with controversial topics such as the assassination of a ruler: by setting them in the classical world Shakespeare could explore these topics without exposing himself to royal wrath (at least not to the same extent). I already knew some of this, but I had no idea, in spite of studying it for A Level, that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the eponymous play was to some extent inspired by Elizabeth I’s relationship with her favourite, the Earl of Essex. ‘The Virgin Queen’ couldn’t seem more remote from the sensual Egyptian leader, but one thing the two did have in common was their role as a leader in a man’s world.

I enjoyed the section on Venice: Shakespeare set a number of plays here (it is rumoured that he travelled to the city during his ‘lost years’), and often treats it as a kind of parallel to London, a modern city with all the problems and complexities that urban areas encounter. I found the section on foreigners – ‘strangers’ – particularly interesting. Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, the ‘Moor’ of the city, both belong in this category, and the ideas and feelings explored in these plays are profound, highly relevant and in many ways ahead of their time.

I often think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but he wrote many of his major works under the reign of James I, drawing inspiration from issues brought up by the new dynasty and the unification of England and Scotland. The exhibition explores the Gunpowder Plot and James’ hatred of witchcraft, both of which helped to inspire Macbeth, and examines the attempted unification of Britain which Shakespeare drew on when writing Cymbeline, the play about the Roman conquest of the ancient Britons. The roughly chronological exploration ends with the Bard’s last solo-authored play, The Tempest, and the ‘brave new world’ it heralds, as well as suggesting that sixteenth-century ‘magician’ John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero.

I loved the exhibition: it was very well laid out and presented, and though I have read and seen several of Shakespeare’s plays, have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and read a few books about him, I still learned things that I hadn’t known before.

Shakespeare: Staging the World is on until 25 November.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys looking at museum gift shops, and the British Museum’s is particularly special. I really wanted the exhibition catalogue (which is more substantial than it sounds, it is a proper book), but it was a bit expensive so I decided to put it on my Christmas list instead. I DID splash out on a mini volume containing summaries of all Shakespeare’s plays and a ruler listing the plays and their (approximate) dates of composition, which I genuinely think will come in handy. I also got a collapsible water bottle with the museum logo, because, really, who wouldn’t want one of those? Finally I impulse-bought a British Museum canvas bag. You can never have too many canvas bags, and if I’m going to promote something with the bag I’m using, it might as well be something I love.

British Museum Gift Shop Goodies