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Shakespeare: staging the world – An Interview with Curator Dora Thornton

The British Museum is currently presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and 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. The book, Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton complements the exhibition and is published by the British Museum Press.

We spoke to author and British Museum curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton about the project, the London 2012 Festival and the world in Shakespeare’s time.

Dora Thornton

Dora Thornton

Shakespeare has been studied for centuries by hundreds of scholars from around the world. What is new about this project?

We reveal a very different Shakespearean landscape when we use objects to illuminate dramatic texts and texts to illuminate objects. We bring together a selection of ordinary and extraordinary things from the early modern world and examine them through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays, creating a dialogue between his imaginary worlds and the lived experience of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This is very much a British Museum approach, in that we use objects to take us directly to the issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his audiences; we examine world cultures in his day but as they were imagined or encountered from London; and we work across the range of the British Museum collection and way beyond it.

This summer, the world has focused on London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games: how important do you think Shakespeare is to the capital and to Britain itself ?

He is still very significant to us as a writer whose name is synonymous with theatre, with poetry and with Britain’s contribution to world culture. Through his plays, which explored human experience in the new arena of the London playhouse for a wide and diverse audience, Shakespeare gave us a vocabulary and a vision of what it meant to be English, then British, and finally a citizen of the world. The exhibition and the book, Shakespeare: staging the world is the British Museum’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, a series of events to showcase British creativity and culture. As Britain moved onto the international stage in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the national poet, proving the universality of his appeal and his friend Ben Jonson’s claim that “He was not of an age, but for all time!” The World Shakespeare Festival, of which contribution is just a part, will demonstrate how his plays continue to live, and give life, four centuries on, across the great theatre of the world.

What would the city have been like for a foreign visitor in Shakespeare’s time?

We explore ways in which the world came to London in his day; the traffic of people passing through the city as well as in the plays; the way in which Shakespeare appears to be lip-reading an increasingly global conversation, as John Hale once put it. We look at how cultures meet and mingle within some of the objects discussed in our book. The visitor’s experience is something we discuss in the opening chapter of our book—particularly in relation to the importance of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey as documenting English history and kingship, and what that meant in making early modern memory. The tombs were very much on the tourist trail, which was becoming established for London around 1600 as it had long been for more famous trading cities like Venice. Some of the comments made by foreign visitors are still telling about London and Londoners today—for example, Thomas Platter says that “London is said not to be in England, but rather England to be in London” and notes that the English are armchair travellers who “prefer to learn foreign matters and take their pleasures at home”.

The range of objects in Shakespeare: staging the world is astonishing – is there one which, for you, sums up the world that Shakespeare was living and writing in?

As curator of the exhibition who has found all the objects, and thought long and hard about their status and significance, I find it difficult to choose just one: it’s the inter-relationships between the objects and Shakespeare’s words, and the groupings, which matter more in layering experience. But I am particularly fond of the way in which we relate a drawing after John White of Kalicho, an Inuk brought to England by Frobisher in 1577, with a doit coin, which take us very directly to Trinculo’s comment: “when they [the English] will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian”. The doit was the coinage of cheap celebrity entertainment. Juxtaposing a real doit coin with the image of Kalicho does much more than illustrate Trinculo’s words: it takes us to the issue of “this new prey”; human beings brought back as trophies from the New World. What were the British to make of this “brave new world” which was opening up all around them?

Shakespeare: staging the world is £40 in hardback, £25 in paperback and can be purchased through the British Museum online shop.

Category: Art, Author Posts, History

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