Shakespeare: staging the world – exhibition review

Star Rating
****
A great connection between context and text. For KS5+ students or for teachers looking to explore the world of Shakespeare that much more.

Shakespeare: staging the world is not your usual Shakespeare exhibition – it is not the Bard’s own work which is at the fore, the exhibition instead focuses on the world which surrounded Shakespeare and how that shaped the content of his plays. The accompanying catalogue says: ‘Shakespeare’s audiences learned at the playhouse what was happening abroad – or what they imagined to be happening abroad.’

The exhibition leads you through the various parts of the world which shaped many of Shakespeare’s plays. London is shown as it would have been during Shakespeare’s era – maps demonstrate the growing use of the Thames, which gave London greater connections to the rest of the world – significant to the influences on Shakespeare’s writing.

Modern elements breathe life into the exhibition. The RSC have filmed a number of short extracts from plays such as As You Like It and Henry V which are projected onto the walls amongst the items on show. This, if nothing else, truly connects the historical context to Shakespeare’s words. It also adds a somewhat more dynamic design element to the experience.

Items on display help to contextualise some of the significant moments in his writing. The political unease found in Macbeth is said to reflect the impact of Guy Fawkes gun powder plot on the country. The witches casting a spell to concoct a storm at sea is said to reflect James I’s fear that he would drown in a shipwreck at the work of the devil. Macbeth clearly engages much of the political paranoia that existed at the time.

The exhibition would be most useful for KS5+ students, specifically those studying Shakespeare’s plays performed in their original performance conditions. There is great contextual evidence for Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar and the many of his works based on monarchs of the country. Making that connection between Shakespeare’s work and what was happening at the time will help to open up students understanding on a whole new level – and may give them a different view point on his plays.

The general consensus on the popularity of Shakespeare is that it stems from his ability to be ‘all things to all men’ through his use of universal themes. Shakespeare: staging the world confirms that assertion, as it displays how in tune Shakespeare was with the world around him and that his plays reflected the contemporary issues affecting the world at the time.

Open until 25 November 2012. To book tickets visit: www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shakespeare_staging_the_world.aspx