Shakespeare: Staging the world - review

An exhibition at the British Museum celebrates our greatest playwright.

London may be a hot and flustered Olympic host this summer, but a small, perfectly formed exhibition celebrates our inarguable global significance in one important cultural respect: Shakespeare. Shakespeare: staging the world forms a wooden "O" in the centre of the British museum (design by Tom Piper and Alan Farlie of RFK Architects). Curators Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton have panned for gold here, and the exhibition shines with their booty. As we prepare for the world to come to London, we find that 400 years ago the world was already here.

This inspired collaboration between the British Museum and the RSC exhibits some 200 objects, from the prosaic to the decorative, that link like enjambment to Shakespeare’s transforming imagination. We’re taken from a copy of the Arundel First Folio (1623) through a series of rooms relating Shakespeare’s plays to the world - or worlds - around him. It’s a deeply considered mix of connections and conjectures.

We see, initially, a little of Shakespeare’s contemporary reality, at a time when globes and globalisation were brand new. An early map misinforms as to the location of his theatre, muddling it with the bearbaiting arena. Easily done, at the time. Philip Henslowe, a sort of 17th-century Cameron Mackintosh, owned a portfolio of entertainments on Bankside, and the Globe sat alongside his bearpits and brothels; a she-bear’s battered skull on display mutely testifies to her brutal treatment in a violent world.

A painting of Richard III (“every tale condemns me for a villain”), suitably crook-backed and with broken sword, reminds us of the prevailing Tudor orthodoxy. Writing in a heavily censored milieu, for a ruling class jittery about conspiracy and succession, Shakespeare turned adroitly to the historical and classical past to navigate politically sensitive themes. On display, for example, is the gold aureus, coined in 43 BC by the Roman conspirators to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar (“the unkindest cut of all”). EID-MAR is clearly inscribed on the back.

Some objects really snag the gaze, like Henry V’s funerary “achievements”. These are the totemic armoury cum relics of the warrior prince, championed by Shakespeare as the apogee of patriotism (“we happy few, we band of brothers”). Shakespeare mentions the helm and sword in his play and undoubtedly would have seen them, exhibited as they were in Westminster Abbey well into the twentieth century. And here in 2012, you too can still see the delicate fleurs de lys woven into the shield’s Chinese silk, of palest blue.

Ironically, we have censorship to thank for the only surviving example of Shakespeare’s handwriting: close, inky, elegant.  Sir Thomas More, which he co-authored, depicted the 1517 London riots against immigrants (“strangers”). Unsurprisingly the Tudor machinery quashed any performances that explored the character of More, so the play was never printed and his handwriting survives.

We visit deepest, loamy England - some simple Elizabethan garden tools; a tapestry of Warwickshire and the Forest of Arden. This is the garlanded countryside of As You Like It and Shallow’s orchard in Henry IV. Stitched into the tapestry are the great houses of Midlands Catholics: the tensions between old and new ways are never far from his text’s surface.

Time and again Shakespeare ransacked other worlds to stage contemporary debate. We get some sense of the traffic of objects and people that was beginning to flow into London, and feed this imagination. The Moroccan ambassador, whose portrait hangs here, made quite a splash in London in 1600. We can only speculate how he fuelled the creative journey to Othello (“the noble Moor”).  A narwhal tusk from Frobisher’s voyage to Baffin Island, the painting of a Brazilian marmoset, form part of a “brave new world” of exploration that illuminates The Tempest.

We end as we begin, with a copy of Shakespeare’s works. This one’s a bit cheap and tatty. But it was the very book smuggled into Robben Island by prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam. He adorned the exterior with Diwali cards and persuaded the authorities it was a Hindu bible. In it the ANC prisoners secretly earmarked and signed passages that resonated with them.

The book lies open at Julius Caesar. Here Nelson Mandela has highlighted and dated (16th December 1977) Caesar’s speech beginning “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”

This, say the curators, is an example of Shakespeare as global resource, and it’s difficult to disagree. It’s one Olympiad ticket you’ll not want to miss out on.

The BP exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum until 25 November.

A view of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (Photo: Getty Images)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage