British Museum blog

Digging deeper into Shakespeare


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

For me, the Shakespeare; staging the world exhibition at the British Museum creates a wonderful journey through the worlds we associate with Shakespeare; the real and the fictional, the physical and the imaginary. Most journeys taken by Shakespeare’s contemporaries will have been the fictional and imaginary since few people at the time will have set foot outside England. Shakespeare – and others – certainly knew about, and exploited knowledge of, that outside world. Historical and archaeological evidence provides a wealth of such knowledge.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1644 view of Bankside showing the Globe and the bear baiting house, both of which have been partially excavated. In this picture, the labels were switched by the engraver. The Globe (1599) to the left whilst the baiting arena, originally the Hope playhouse (1613), is to the right.

London was a major port with international mercantile contacts. It was one of the largest cities in the world – and growing. Immigration – albeit mostly internal – made it a cosmopolitan city. It was the seat of royal power, national parliament and the country’s commercial and legal centre. The exhibition also introduces us to the great and the good, from the queen and the aristocratic patrons of the playhouses such as Leicester, Essex and Hunsdon to the playwrights and actors. By the 1570s there was a large and diverse ready-made audience with a thirst for leisure and entertainment which made London the first home of the professional theatre. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright Thomas Heywood was immensely proud of his adoptive city and very conscious of its theatrical pre-eminence. He compared it with ancient Rome, but stressed this international importance:

Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations, repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration: for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more then in London?

Foreign visitors indeed left accounts of the new fangled London playhouses – they were very different from those in contemporary Spain but a playhouse built in Gdansk in 1611 was itself based on the Fortune playhouse built in north London in 1600.

1989 excavation showing the Rose remains amongst
20th-century concrete foundations. The outline of the
first stage of 1587 can be seen on the left whilst that of
the rebuilt stage of 1592 – either side of the 2m scale –
can be seen to the right, just in front of the modern
concrete

As an archaeologist I have specialised in the ‘Shakespearean theatre’ for a number of years and we, at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), have now excavated parts of the Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Globe (1599) and the Hope of 1613. We have also excavated two of the Bankside bear gardens. The archaeological contribution to Shakespearean studies has now provided a vast and immensely useful body of information on these early theatres and thousands of artefacts that illustrate the working life of Shakespeare and his audiences. Details of all these sites, and others, have been gathered in my book Shakespeare’s London Theatreland, published by MOLA this year. I was thus delighted to be asked what objects we have unearthed that might illustrate aspects of everyday life in Shakespearean London. The spirit of cooperation we, and other institutions, have had with the British Museum this year has triumphed in this exhibition.

In theatrical terms, the ‘Shakespearean period’ covers the years between 1567 when the first playhouse was built (when Shakespeare was 3 years old) to 1642 when parliament closed them all (26 years after Shakespeare died). It is this period that saw the flowering of English drama and the unique playing spaces built in London that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for and acted in. Here, you could imagine yourself in the ‘vasty fields of France’, ‘the greatest part of Spain’, in ‘fair Verona’ or ‘with us in Venice’ and in more distant exotic worlds such as the ‘the furthest inch of Asia’ or even ‘America, the Indies?’

The archaeological finds on display in the British Museum’s exhibition are all from the Rose excavations of 1989 and represent the building itself (the baluster), what might be a prop (the fork, found in the stage area), and everyday items that might be lost by either actors or, more likely, audiences. Like the evidence for what playgoers ate and wore, many of these finds represented rich and exotic imports.

A luxury fork discovered on the site of the Rose playhouse

The objects from Stratford – shovel, watering can and ceramics – represent (Shakespeare’s) life in the country through similar everyday items. One of the striking pieces in the exhibition is a bear skull that was found on a building site near the modern Globe where the original bear baiting rings were situated. This cruel ‘sport’ was just another form of ‘entertainment’ to people at the time.

The range of material within the exhibition is wonderfully evocative of Shakespeare’s whole world(s) but a particular thrill for me was seeing, for the first time in the flesh, the Titus Andronicus drawing . Shakespeare’s play was first performed at the Rose on 23 January 1594 and the line at the front must represent the stage that we excavated there 23 years ago!

Julian Bowsher will be giving a lecture at the British Museum on Thursday 25 October on ‘Shakespeare and his theatres in London‘.
Find out more about Shakespeare events programme

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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We’re sharing our favourite photos taken by visitors – use #myBritishMuseum if you’d like to feature! Here’s a brilliant shot by @j.ziolkowski that really captures the cool tones of the Great Court. We love the collision of lines in this photo – the hard edges of the original 1823 building set against the curvature of the later Reading Room and tessellation of the glass roof. 
Get snapping if you’d like to feature in our next #regram. 
#BritishMuseum #architecture #perspective #GreatCourt This Degas print is an example of the subject matter and technique the artist moved towards in the early 1890s. During this time, Degas produced sketchy prints showing female figures post-bathing. In this print we can see that the ink has been reworked during the printing process – the hair and shoulders show evidence of additional brushstrokes. The backgrounds of these works are much more sketchy and blurred than works he produced earlier in his career, perhaps showing his increased interest in figures.
#Degas #print #portrait The intense gaze of this young woman was originally intended to appear in the background of a horse racing scene by Degas, but the painting was never completed. This type of challenging composition is typical of the French artist’s work – he liked to crop the viewpoints of his paintings and sketches to create a different atmosphere. The coolly returned stare reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and subject, and emphasises Degas’ progressive approach to painting.
#Degas #painting #sketch #Paris French artist Edgar Degas died #onthisday in 1917. Today we’ll feature works that showcase his radical approach to framing subjects, and his subtle handling of form and tone. This vivid oil sketch from 1876–1877 depicts a repeated motif in Degas’ work – the Parisian ballet. He captured both performances and behind-the-scenes moments in his paintings and sketches, often using vantage points that give a fly-on-the-wall impression to his work. Degas worked rapidly but precisely – mirroring the movements of the dancers he portrayed – and this work is completed in thinned-down oil paint so that his quick brushstrokes could dry quickly.
#Degas #sketch #oilpainting #Paris #ballet Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition - until 30 November. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were thriving cities long before the foundation of the great port of Alexandria in 331 BC. Finds suggest that they were still inhabited into the AD 700s. The cities’ disappearance was caused by gradual subsidence into the sea – much like Venice today – coupled with earthquakes and tidal waves. This triggered a phenomenon known as land ‘liquefaction’, when the ground turns into liquid. 
This reconstruction shows what the port of Thonis-Heracleion could have looked like, dominated by the Temple of Amun-Gereb. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets to our #SunkenCities exhibition. © Yann Bernard. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
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