Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Shakespeare in Pieces.

Off to the British Museum to see the astonishing Staging the World exhibition, looking at Shakespeare's life and times through a series of remarkable artefact both from the museum's own collection and beyond.

It's a deliberately eclectic display of stuff which leads you through some key themes London as a global city, the rural countryside of Shakespeare's youth, kingship and the English nation and rooms dedicated to Shakespeare's view of classical civilisation, the religious conversions of the sixteenth century and finally a look at the brave new worlds of the Americas that were being explored during the Jacobean age.

Almost every object carries a fascinating story and help to paint a picture of the World 400 years ago and the three hours I'd given myself to explore wasn't nearly enough time.

Early on you come across an evocative revision from the multi-authored play, Sir Thomas More. The corrections are clearly in Shakespeare's spidery hand, including crossings out, experiments and inserts. It's a reassuringly familiar document of trial and error.

 Next door is Henry V's 'bruised helmet' along with the shield and saddle used at Agincourt. From Henry's death in 1422, right up until 1972 these tributes were displayed on the crossbeam above the King's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Visual icons of our ancestors triumphant victory over France, and well known to the citizens of the Elizabethan city. I had never seen them before.

Towards the end the gorgeous intricacy of the Lyte Jewel, presented to Thomas Lyte by James I in thanks for the genealogical research that helped the new King establish noble credentials by tracing his blood line, somewhat unbelievably, back to Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain.

There are more gruesome exhibits as well, the skull of a bear found in excavations of the baiting pits in Southwark, a fossilised calf's heart stuck with pins, used as a counter charm to protect livestock from witches and hobgoblins and most stomach churning of all, the shrivelled eye of Father Edward Oldcorne, a Jesuit priest, saved as a relic at his execution. 'Out vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?'

Finally, right at the exit, modestly sits The Robben Island Bible, opened at Mandela's signature. After four years following it's story it was a strange experience to actually see it, proud, battered but still and lifeless, protected behind in a glass case. It was like meeting a familiar friend in a strange place and not quite knowing how to react.


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