British Museum blog

The theatre of monarchy

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Europe: Triumphs of the Past looks at displays of power.


Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare scholar

Ceremony is the thing that makes a monarchy happen. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King reflects on the importance of ceremony, but he refers to it as `idol’ ceremony.

The English have always done royal ceremony and pageantry very well and it is one of the main devices that keep the monarchy going. So in Shakespeare’s time, something like the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth or the coronation procession of King James would have been huge public events, the streets of London would have been thronged and the elite would actually have been there in the Abbey, at the front when the coronation or the burial took place.

There is an interesting difference between the way that Queen Elizabeth and King James used ceremony. Elizabeth, perhaps because of her insecurity about her own position on the throne, as a woman, a woman without an heir, and a Protestant, relied a lot on public ceremony, processions through the streets and indeed through the nation; visitations to great aristocratic households. She also moved a lot from palace to palace; the court was mobile. One week they would be at the palace at Whitehall and another week they would be down river at Greenwich, another week up river at Nonesuch or Richmond. The public saw this extraordinary bejewelled figure of the Queen.

King James was reluctant to display himself in public in this way. He did make use of ceremony, in particular made use of theatrical entertainments with the court masks in which the royal family and the courtiers participated in theatre and music and dancing. But this was very much an enclosed thing aimed at the elite who were invited to attend, aimed at visiting royalty, visiting diplomats and so on. So there is an interesting contrast between the importance of public spectacle for Queen Elizabeth and this more private, enclosed sense of the court that King James had.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Europe: Triumphs of the Past

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
#repost #regram
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum
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