Nov 5, 2012
Shakespeare: staging the world, written by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, offers a fascinating view of the early modern world through the eyes of Shakespeare, his players and audiences and is a unique opportunity to examine how London’s identity was being shaped four hundred years ago. While matters of religion, trade and war were being contested, the role of the playwright developed to inform, persuade and provoke debate on the concerns of the day. None performed this role with more brilliance than William Shakespeare, whose legacy shaped a new national identity.
This richly illustrated book presents an extraordinary collection of objects from the British Museum’s unrivalled collection, as well as key pieces from Britain and elsewhere. One of these objects is the infamous Guy Fawkes’ lantern, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. We’ve included an excerpt relating to the Guy Fawkes’ lantern here in celebration of Bonfire Night.
“The spectacular fiasco of the Gunpowder Plot or Powder Treason in 1605 – a Catholic act of terrorism allegedly designed to blow up the king, his family, Parliament and the judiciary – provided the essential backdrop for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which deals with ‘dire combustion and confused events’ (2.3.52). This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word ‘combustion’ and it is in this play that he introduces the word ‘assassination’ into English literature (1.7.2).
“However the precise significance of the Gunpowder Plot is interpreted, there is no doubt that it changed the British national psyche forever and put an end to any possibility of a reversion to Catholicism as the state religion. The preacher Lancelot Andrewes referred to it in a famous sermon of 5 November 1606 as ‘our Passover’, the salvation of a people by the direct intervention of God, which required a ‘yearly acknowledgment to be made of it through all generations’ in the manner of the Jewish festival of Passover. The Plot inspired ballads, broadsides, plays and sermons within the year following its discovery, and in the following decades it was paired with the defeat of the Armada in written and visual propaganda. In each event, the ruler had been promoted as the saviour of the nation, divinely protected and justified. Both events were seen as a national victory for Protestantism against an international Catholicism that threatened England’s very survival.
“’Guy Fawkes’ lantern’, a secular relic now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, takes us close to the Gunpowder Plot and its legacy. Fawkes was identified with his lantern in the popular imagination and in contemporary images, and a number of lanterns with alleged links to him survive. This one reputedly given to Oxford University in 1641 by Robert Heywood of Brasenose College. His father was the Justice of the Peace who had arrested Fawkes underneath the Palace of Westminster as he was about to set off the explosion. It was shown in the Bodleian Library as a document of British history and as a testament to anti-Catholicism and Catholic exclusion from the time of its gift into the 1880s, when it was transferred to the Ashmolean Museum. The fact that an ordinary lantern of this kind was kept as a talisman or icon – whether or not it was indeed associated with Fawkes – testifies to the role of the Plot in the British imagination”.
Excerpt from Shakespeare: staging the world, published by the British Museum Press (hardback £40, paperback £25),which is available from the British Museum shop. The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition runs until 25th November, and tickets can be purchased here.
Text ©Trustees of the British Museum