British Museum blog

Not of an age, but for all time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Shakespeare Goes Global looks at how Shakespeare’s audience left the Globe and became the whole world.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


Barrie Cook, radio series curator, British Museum

Working with Neil on the Shakespeare’s Restless World programmes as series curator, I usually felt I had a pretty good idea of the focus and trajectory of each episode as it reached broadcast point. This was not at all the case for the final programme Shakespeare Goes Global. So many ideas, so many directions, so many locations had been mooted throughout the development of the script that, listening to the final version, my inside knowledge wasn’t that much better than anyone else’s. For this final blog post, we thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ideas that got away, from some that were dismissed in an instant to others that remained for some time through the development process.

For a while, Shakespeare’s impact on popular culture was going to play a big part: a programme that could open with the Beatles (‘Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song’, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) and end with the Arctic Monkeys (‘Oh, there ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets/ Are just banging tunes and DJ sets and/ Dirty dance-floors, and dreams of naughtiness!’). En route, we’d maybe call in on foreign-language Shakespeare, from the films of Kurosawa and Kozintsev, and dramatic re-workings like Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet) and of course YouTube hits (Green Eggs and Hamlet; the Star Wars Macbeth).

Shakespeare himself began as a purveyor of a vulgar form of entertainment, using understandable language full of references to the world he and his audience inhabited; he used clowns and caricatures and lots of jokes, good, bad and dirty. He wrote song and dance into his plays, some of which were virtually musicals well before Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story, and he set his own words to the pop hits of the day. He revisited other playwrights’ work and was happy to collaborate with co-authors, like a Hollywood screen-writer. So perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if, in turn, his own words and characters were adopted and adapted by generations of artists and entertainers. Even The Klingon Hamlet.

The core object for this final episode is one from the 20th century, a book of Shakespeare’s complete works annotated by prisoners from Robben Island. However, to keep in with the spirit of the series, we felt strongly that we also needed a firm root in the time of Shakespeare. Therefore the impact of the First Folio, the first Collected Works of Shakespeare, would inevitably loom large. Shakespeare himself, it seems, had next to no interest in publishing his plays (unlike Ben Jonson), so it was left to his friends to do it for him after his death.

There is so much to say about the First Folio – how many plays survive only through it, especially for the later part of his career; how important it was in creating the idea of the celebrity author and the cult of Shakespeare; how it changed attitudes to the importance of drama in English. For a while the story of the First Folio in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (acquired hot off the press in the 1620s and with a fascinating history), was going to be the focus of this approach, but it was too much of a digression. A little of this remains in the programme, now focussed on the British Library’s First Folio, but much does not.

The Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front
of BBC’s Broadcasting House

The interaction of Shakespeare with the BBC from the first broadcast of his work on 16 February 1923 was always going to be important, and remains in the final version of the programme. Inevitably dropping away was the bizarre controversy over the size of Ariel’s genitals on the Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House, arbitrated by a committee of eminent Shakespeareans and medical experts. Any reader of Shakespeare knows that prudery was not one of his characteristics and he would presumably have found this whole business in equal parts baffling and hilarious.

From the 2012 commemorative coinage to the opening ceremony of the Olympics (to take its cue from The Tempest’s ‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of voices’), Shakespeare is inescapable this year. Yet he always is; we just don’t usually focus on his importance so consciously.

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 Shakespeare Goes Global

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

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
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The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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