19 Jul 2012

New Shakespeare exhibition opens

4:48 pm on 19 July 2012

A new exhibition dedicated to Williams Shakespeare's plays opens at the British Museum in London on Thursday.

Shakespeare: staging the world is designed to show parellels between the Bard's times and the contemporary world.

Using many objects dating from the late 16th and early 17th century, the exhibition seeks to display London as it was when Shakespeare was a dramatist at the Globe theatre.

It is part of the London 2012 Festival, a celebration of British culture designed to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games next week and the World Shakespeare Festival.

Among the exhibits is a cheap edition of the complete works of Shakespeare kept secretly at the South African jail by political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam in the 1970s.

Nelson Mandela is one of dozens of prisons who signed their name next to passages that resonated with them personally.

In 1977 Mandela left his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar, that begins:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

Also displayed is what is believed to be the only surviving example of a working manuscript in Shakespeare's hand - lines from Sir Thomas More which he probably contributed to.

The play depicts the riots that broke out in London in 1517 directed at immigrants living in the city at the time.

A broad sense of unease in England brought on by its split with the Catholic Church works its way into the Bard's plays and helps explain why "when the times are out of joint we need Shakespeare," British Museum director Neil MacGregor says.

"We are trying to get some of that sense of insecurity, which gives the plays their trenchance and makes them so powerful to us," he said in an introduction to the show.