By Patricia H. Kushlis
The most talked about play in London this summer is the Globe’s “Richard
III.” At least among my small circle of
friends and relatives. The most
reviewed exhibit is “Shakespeare Staging the World” on display at the British Museum until November 25. I don’t pretend to have seen the former but I
did visit the Shakespeare exhibit last week.
This special exhibit – a hefty entry of 14£ for non-museum
members except for half prince for seniors on Mondays – has been on display since
July 19 presumably to coincide with the 2012 Olympic games in London. The title is catchy and the exhibit uses
multi-media effectively but it seems to me that Shakespeare focused primarily on
British history, the flora and fauna surrounding Stratford-on-Avon, plus the
Greeks and the Romans – don’t recall seeing a play of his that even included a
Native American, for example, so I’m not sure that the Bard did “stage the
world.” But never mind, this special exhibit itself placed Shakespeare’s world
in the context of his time and I guess the museum needed a title that somehow
tied it into the world class games.
Shakespeare wrote when England
had just begun major expansion beyond its core – from the hostile takeover of Scotland – or the consolidation of Scotland into England
– depending upon how one looks at it – to the exploration and colonization of
the New World.
was its major international rival although, as it turned out, plenty of
land existed for both and the French too.
Censorship and Propaganda Not Just Twentieth Century Phenomena
Years ago when I worked in Moscow, one of our exchange students
described a production of Hamlet that he had just seen. Theater was one of the Russian intelligentsia’s
few outlets for expressing opposition to the Communist regime. But it had to be done carefully. Productions had to be approved by the censors.
That meant many plays never appeared on the official stage but, the student
told me, in the case of Hamlet, it was how the actors had performed the story that
turned the production into a riveting indictment of the Soviet leadership not Shakespeare’s
lines themselves which had been rigorously adhered to and, of course, had been
written three centuries before Brezhnev.
In “Shakespeare: Staging the World,” the visitor learns that
Shakespeare too needed to be wary of the censors. Queen Elizabeth I was not one
to be criticized; the court disliked critics, the aristocracy financed the
production of his plays and political criticism needed to be veiled. As a consequence, many of his plays were set
in classical Greece and Rome – look for the parallels between Elizabeth and
Cleopatra for instance – and Shakespeare’s historical works told the stories of
English history from the standpoint of the ruling dynasty. Early examples of propaganda with the stories
told being those of the victors – not the vanquished.
Why the British
Museum chose to feature a
domestically focused exhibit during the London Olympics 2012 or decided to
charge 14£ ($22) for entrance is curious. You’d hope that BP, the cosponsor, would have
wanted more people – not only the relatively well heeled – to see it. Guess not.
Much of the Museum’s permanent collection – think, for
instance, the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, the Rosetta Stone from Egypt and friezes
from Ancient Assyria – came from elsewhere. Perhaps best not to emphasize during
the London Olympics how those art objects arrived in London though, for any number of reasons.
A Political and Social Not Literary Exhibit
But back to Shakespeare’s “Staging the World.” This was a
political, not a literary exhibit or perhaps it could best be described as literature
in the context of the politics and society of the day. The goal was to show the social and political
context of the period: Shakespeare lived
in a society at the cusp of a new age. He died in 1616, four years before the Pilgrims
landed at Plymouth Rock although Columbus had
sailed the ocean blue in 1492, the Spanish had settlements in Mexico and were beginning to settle New Mexico, Jamestown had
been founded and lost and a few Native Americans had been brought to England as
curiosities and trophies.
But was Shakespeare a part of that new age? Or was he foremost a transitional figure? Did he presage it? The exhibit shows us that he was an acute
social critic and observer of human nature and that as such his works – like
Richard III – are still relevant in our time but even he had no crystal
ball. Maybe the everlasting foibles of
human nature and the future as eternal mystery are the lessons that should be this exhibit's
final take away.