Reliquary containing the right eye of the Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ, c. 1606, silver, (Stonyhurst College). By permission of the British Jesuit Province.

British Museum Celebrates Olympics with Shakespeare Exhibition

Lantern traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes, given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. Made of sheet iron. Copyright of Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, ambassador to England from the King of Barbary (Morocco), unknown artist, England, c. 1600. Oil on panel. Copyright of Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Birmingham).

Ides of March coin, reverse, 43-42 BC, gold aureus commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar, Romes most famous murder and the subject of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The reverse shows the daggers with which Julius Caesar was murdered and a cap of liberty to symbolise the idea of the liberation of Rome from Caesar's rule. Lent by Michael Winckless Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Lyte Jewel, open, enamelled gold with diamonds and containing a miniature of James VI and I by Thomas Hilliard. Made in London and presented to Thomas Lyte in 1610 in thanks for his royal genealogy tracing James' descent, through Banquo, from Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain. Waddesdon Bequest in 1898 to the British Museum Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum.


British Museum
Great Russell Street
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Reading Room
Shakespeare: staging the world
July 19-November 25, 2012

During the summer of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games the British Museum is presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival in the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad.

One of the key innovations of the period was the birth of the modern professional theatre: purpose-built playhouses and professional playwrights were a new phenomenon, with the most successful company being the Chamberlain's/King's Men at the Globe who worked alongside their house dramatist, William Shakespeare. The exhibition shows how the playhouse informed, persuaded and provoked thought on the issues of the day; how it shaped national identity, first English, then British; and how the theatre opened a window on the wider world, from Italy to Africa to America, as London's global contacts were expanding through international trade, colonisation, and diplomacy.

The exhibition creates a unique dialogue between an extraordinary array of objects — from great paintings and rare manuscripts to modest, everyday items of the time — and the plays and characters that have had a richer cultural legacy than any other in the western world. Among the objects linked to Shakespeare and his works is the Ides of March coin, the gold aureus commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; a plot in which he was a key figure and the subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers from Barbary who came to London in 1600 on a state visit. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of fascination and of fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare: they may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

The exhibition also explores the theatre-going experience at the time, which was very different to that of today. The newly built playhouses were situated in the suburbs: Bankside was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, the cultural world inhabited by the playhouse, which rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas as well as brothels and pubs.

The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance. The British Museum will produce, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a series of new digital interventions which will appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside the objects on display. The arrival of the Games to London in 2012 provides the opportunity to reflect on how the world came to London four centuries ago, and how Londoners perceived the world when global exchange and other aspects of modernity originated.

Nicolas Cordier (1567 to 1612) Bust of a black African, Rome, c. 1610. Black bigio morato marble and white marble; H. 34 cm. Dresden, Copyright of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Skulpturensammlung

Portrait of Richard III with broken sword, unknown artist, c. 1523 to 1555. Oil on panel. Copyright of Society of Antiquaries of London, 2011.

Harpy or Siren, woodcut print by Melchior Lorch, 1582 Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Arundel First Folio - Engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Copyright of the Governors of Stonyhurst College.

Skull of a bear, excavated from the site of the Globe. Probably a female; the skull lacks its lower jaw and some teeth, and shows that the bear had suffered a blow to the back of the head. Copyright of Dulwich College, London.