As a part of my work for Context Travel, I’m currently in
London with their staff and yesterday, we took a walk along the south side of
the Thames; and today at the
British Museum I saw Shakespeare Staging the World, a special exhibition
devoted to exploring how Shakespeare’s plays reflected the time when London was
emerging as a world city; and the ways he shaped a sense of
national identity (and, in no small measure, how his sense of the world
continues to matter to us today).
It’s meaningful to be in a place and then see objects
related to it—even ones that seem small.
Yesterday, our great, enthusiastic guide Carolyn stopped us at Bear Lane
and talked about bear-baiting as a spectator sport, even quoting from Samuel
Pepys diary entry. Today in the
exhibition I encountered a bear skull, with its teeth filed down, excavated from
the site of the new Globe Theater, a handwritten poster for bear baiting, along
with a quote from Shakespeare on the same topic. The place, the object, the document and the literary source,
On the walk along the Thames, the river served as the
ongoing central focus; from Sir
Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and the docks to the survival of St. Paul’s during
World War II despite German bombers ability to follow the reflection of the
river during bombing runs. And in the exhibit, Shakespeare's historical plays, Italian plays and more made me remember what we had seen the day before and provided me with an even deeper context.
It’s the bringing it up today that made it meaningful to
me, and I suspect it does to many other people as well. The Shakespeare exhibition showcased a array
of objects, both glittering, gruesome and
everyday, from a shield associated with the funeral of Henry V to a calf's heart stuck with pins used by witches, from embroidered
tapestries to paintings of queens.
But the exhibit felt not just historical but also modern. Video projections or screens feature
actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, simply dressed, performing works
from Shakespeare. I watched Paterson Joseph perform Brutus' speech from Julius Caeser twice, literally compelled to pay attention by his voice and presence--a reminder that Shakespeare's language still matters.
The conclusion of the exhibit brings us to
where we—we as visitors, and where we as Britons (not me, but the audience) are today. The Tempest, the imagined new world of
Shakespeare, reveals his interest in those questions of who we are in a
changing world. The exhibit encourages us to ponder, but doesn't answer (nor do I think needs to) why his work continues to have meaning for so many.
The final object is the exhibition is the Robbens Island
Bible; a copy of Shakespeare's works, it was owned by South African prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam and explained to his guards as a Bible. He shared it with other prisoners and
asked them to sign their names next to passages that were particularly
meaningful to them. Here’s the
verses Nelson Mandela found particular meaning in this passage from Julius Caeser:
Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never
taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It
seems to me most strange that men should fear, / Seeing that death, a
necessary end, / Will come when it will come.
In our conversations here we’ve been talking about making walks
transformative and what that really means. Can we change lives through exhibitions or walks? Maybe or maybe not. Can we change the way we might look at
the world? Most assuredly.