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 the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest surviving Bible. It’s a star loan from @britishlibrary in our forthcoming #EgyptExhibition and dates back to the 4th century AD. 
Handwritten in Greek, not long after the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (AD 306–337), it contains the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament. 
The codex will be displayed alongside two other founding texts of the Hebrew and Muslim faiths: the First Gaster Bible, also being loaned by @britishlibrary, and a copy of the Qur’an from @bodleianlibs in Oxford. These important texts show the transition of Egypt from a world of many gods to a majority Christian and then majority Muslim society, with Jewish communities periodically thriving throughout.  #Egypt #history #bible #faith #onthisday in 31 BC: Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium. After the death of Cleopatra, Egypt was brought into the Roman Empire and the ancient Egyptian gods, such as the falcon god Horus shown here, were reimagined in Roman dress to establish the new authority. 
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition, opening 29 October 2015.

#history #ancientEgypt #Cleopatra #RomanEmpire New exhibition announced: ‘Egypt: faith after the pharaohs’ opens 29 October 2015

Discover Egypt’s journey over 1,200 years, as Jews, Christians and Muslims transformed an ancient land. From 30 BC to AD 1171, #EgyptExhibition charts the change from a world of many gods to the worship of one God.

Tickets now on sale at britishmuseum.org/egypt

#egypt #history #faith For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap.
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