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

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

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To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

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J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment! Our unique new partnership with Google's Cultural Institute @googleartproject now allows you to virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!
#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone Have you explored the Museum on @googleartproject yet? You'll now find over 5,000 objects in the Google Cultural Institute, including virtual exhibits inspired by #Celts and #EgyptExhibition as well as gigapixel imagery and the whole Museum on #StreetView!

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