Review: Shakespeare – Staging The World at The British Museum

Review: Shakespeare – Staging The World at The British Museum

This giant map of sixteenth century venice looks familiar.

Oh right.

Because I’ve seen it in two other exhibitions; one at the British Museum and one at the British Library.

(You start to question how you allocate your leisure time when even the British Museum’s assets recycle.)

And in many ways, this sums up the entire exhibit for me.

Yes, I go to museums all the time which potentially means I’m more difficult/annoying to impress. Yes, I adore Shakespeare’s plays. But the exhibition seems somehow ‘bitsy’… there are swords, maps, tapestries, books, etc. All wonderful artefacts in their own right. However, it lacks a hero object like a replica Kaaba or a giant scroll of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead.

As such, it felt like its core thesis was left strangely hanging. The core thesis being:

The late 16th- and early 17th-century London that Shakespeare (1564-1616) inhabited was already on its way to becoming the global metropolis that we know — and constantly hear about — today.

In the period that Shakespeare was active, the English were already morphing into the British. With the advent of James I in 1603, the first monarch to rule jointly over Scotland and England — Wales and Ireland already having been conquered by the English — the kingdom for the first time became united.

Although the formal Act of Union did not come until more than a century later, the exhibition and the excellent accompanying book by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton suggest that Shakespeare moved rapidly from thinking of himself as English to writing about “British” history in “King Lear” and “Cymbeline.” One of the most intriguing exhibits is a draft of six proposed designs for a union flag dating from around 1604 (none quite as nifty as the actual Union Jack).

Some parts of it ring true. Not only the reasonable assumption that a Scottish king ruling over the English saw the emergence of the first notion of ‘Britishness’ as an identity, but even in the case of England… this is the first time that the counties were properly mapped. These maps gave the English a way of seeing their own local identity in relation to and in the context of each other’s geographies.

Still… the exhibition doesn’t feel like its sum is greater than its parts. But the parts themselves are particularly interesting from a magical perspective, so that’s what we’ll examine.

A tapestry map of Shakespeare’s birth county of Warwickshire. The influence of maps on the emerging British identity is a cornerstone of the exhibition

Gunpowder reliquaries

Part of James I’s terror of witches stemmed from his paranoia that he would be assassinated (a word first found in English in the works of Shakespeare) by Catholics.

It was certainly a very ‘terroristy’ time, what with all of Catholic Europe trying to destroy Elizabeth and then James I. Shakespeare himself was very likely a secret Catholic. (Pause to enjoy the amusing inversion of Catholic trappings being the concealed part of a folk religion, rather than the concealing part.)

Anyway, one of the grisliest exhibits was a reliquary containing the eye of one of the Gunpowder Plotters, Edward Oldcorne. It was plucked from his severed head one evening as it rotted on a spike on London Bridge along with the heads of his other conspirators. History is awesome.

Simon Forman

This was a wizard that Shakespeare actually knew, which was news to me, and the exhibition includes a couple of his journals.

He was a famous London astrologer who was imprisoned a couple of times, loved the theatre, actually ran with Shakespeare’s crowd and rather helpfully left detailed journal entries about seeing some of the Bard’s plays on the Southbank, including A Winter’s Tale. Like any good wizard of his day, he was prolific:

Despite the efforts of the medical establishment, Forman established a thriving astrological practice. His casebooks survive from 1596–1603, documenting up to 2000 consultations a year. These records contain intimate details about the health, fortunes, and romantic activities of numerous Londoners. Some of the most vivid accounts are about himself. He cast charts to know when his health would improve, to determine the best time to send letters to patrons and visit friends, and to locate his missing socks and stolen books. He dreamed that he offered to impregnate the Queen in order to stop her skirts from dragging in the muddy London streets — and recorded the dream in his notebooks. During this period Forman devoted himself to the study of the medical, occult and related arts. He produced thousands of pages of guides to astrology, compendia of alchemy, histories of creation and related works. Forman took these subjects seriously. And he produced an astonishingly rich repository of Elizabethan manuscript culture.


A proud -but probably quiet- owner of one of the first copies of the Picatrix to reach England (now in the possession of the British Library), his writings and library were collated after his death -an event he predicted- by none other than Elias Ashmole; a founding wizard of the Royal Society and namesake/founder of the Ashmolean in Oxford.

The Glenorchy Charmstone

Okay, this was definitely new to me. I was unaware that there is a long history of charmstones as family heirlooms among the Highland families but there is a range of them on display in the part of the exhibition devoted to magic and witchcraft. (Macbeth, etc.)

From behind the glass, the two that felt the most active were the Glenorchy Charmstone and the Brooch of Lorn.

Dating from the 7th or 8th century, the charmstone was hung from a chain so that it could be dipped in water which would then take on healing properties. Whoever drinks from a glass containing the stone before travelling will return home safe.

It is believed to have been warn into battle against the Turks when Sir Colin Campbell fought alongside the Knights Hospitallers.

I found them weirdly compelling… as in, it felt like there is some tech to be extracted from these customs.

Crazy Ol’ Dr Dee

Some of the other recycled artefacts include Dr Dee’s scrying mirror and an Enochian tablet that are usually housed in the Enlightenment Gallery.

But there is something else, something I hadn’t seen before. Apparently -despite being asked by no one- he devised a new calendar for the Empire to replace the all-together-too-Papist one the rest of Europe was using. It’s based on astrological categories and Biblical angelic hierarchies.

And because I prefer uncrowded exhibitions to sleeping in on the weekend, I snapped a couple of phone photos while no one was around. Remind you of anything?

Man I love that crazy old wizard. What made it extra special is that we were at the location of his house just across the river from me the weekend before so it felt like running into a friend.

This is the best I could get it to look. It’s a fascinating object.


Perhaps it was simply a matter of mismatched expectations. If you put ‘Shakespeare’ in the title of your exhibition, there is a vague expectation that the artefacts will be more… theatrical?

There is certainly some good information on the whole Southbank scene at the time -for instance, I didn’t know Henslowe was probably the first entertainment baron. In addition to theatres, he also owned bear-baiting rings and whorehouses, effectively making him an Elizabethan Walt Disney.

There is also some genuinely excellent AV presentations of RSC actors performing different parts of his work, but the man himself -as ever- remains strangely elusive.

In his absence, content yourself with this rather excellent little video (in full screen):


Add yours
  1. 1

    I went to see this not so long ago. I do have a question though, were the light flickering in the glass case which housed Dee’s scrying mirror and the calender reform, when you visited? I didn’t know if it was the museum trying to be theatrical or whether there was some strangeness going on.

  2. 2

    Lovely exposition. And that Simon Forman character seems to be very interesting.
    Gordon, did you ever watch “Prospero’s Books” by Peter Greenway? If yes, what do you think of it?

  3. 3

    @S I didn’t notice, but if I’m honest, I was unsuccessfully trying to scry. :)

    @Hierax A long time ago, in university. I had a tutor who was a Greenaway fanatic. Can barely recall it but I may seek it out now.

  4. 4

    I got so lost in the map & had to start reading all over. How did the charmstones come to be in an exhibit? Loaned, donated, owned? I would rather unsettled, to have a family charmstone so far out of reach. Forman does sound an interesting person.

+ Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge