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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Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
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Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
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