As part of the overall London 2012 Festival, the British Museum is hosting a major exhibition about the great English playwrite, William Shakespeare. However, this show has a focus on how the plays of Shakespeare and the theatre in general helped to shape Londoners’ emotional and political view of themselves as firstly English and latterly as British. The interaction between England and other parts of the world is an important part of the exhibition.

What is most fascinating is the evidence, sometimes in actual objects, that Shakespeare based his plays on people, events and items that he had seen in real life. This ranges from the funeral ahievements of King Henry V, which Shakespeare described as “his bruised helmet and bended sword”, as well as the Ambassadorial delegation of the Moroccans to Elizabeth I, upon whom Shakespeare might have based his Othello character.

The exhibition also looks at the play-going experience of the time and shows, through excavated objects, like a sweetmeat fork and a bear’s skull, that going to the Bankside theatres of the Globe and the Rose, was quite a rough and dangerous affair. The area was notorious, set amidst bear-baiting venues, pubs and brothels. However, the requirement of the time to hold a license ensured that the theatre companies became what we would understand as professional. And, as nowadays, the play-houses put on a range of shows, from comedies, tragedies and historical dramas, to attract in as many people as they could. Watching these plays helped form the historical and world view of the audience. We know even today how persuasive this could be from the still shabby reputation of the maligned Richard III.

The exhibition is being held in the amazing Round Reading Room, and like previous shows there, the exhibition design is pretty awesome in itself. The designers have certainly made best use of the dramatic architecture to help create an Elizabethan feel. Anyone interested in exhibition design should surely get along to see it as well as anyone who cares about politics, history or the power of literature.

Image credits: Both images courtesy of the British Museum Press Office