Shakespeare: staging the world

The British Museum’s London 2012 Festival exhibition

19 July – 25 November 2012
Reading Room

During the summer of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games the British Museum presents a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival in the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad.

One of the key innovations of the period was the birth of the modern professional theatre: purpose-built playhouses and professional playwrights were a new phenomenon, with the most successful company being the Chamberlain's/King's Men at the Globe who worked alongside their house dramatist, William Shakespeare. The exhibition shows how the playhouse informed, persuaded and provoked thought on the issues of the day; how it shaped national identity, first English, then British; and how the theatre opened a window on the wider world, from Italy to Africa to America, as London's global contacts were expanding through international trade, colonisation and diplomacy.

The exhibition creates a unique dialogue between an extraordinary array of objects – from great paintings and rare manuscripts to modest, everyday items of the time – and the plays and characters that have had a richer cultural legacy than any other in the western world. Among the objects linked to Shakespeare and his works are the Funeral Achievements of Henry V, which were on public display at Westminster Abbey in Shakespeare’s time and were written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’. The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers from Barbary who came to London in 1600 on a state visit. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of fascination and of fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare: they may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

The exhibition also explores the theatre-going experience at the time, which was very different to that of today. The newly built playhouses were situated in the suburbs: Bankside was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, the cultural world inhabited by the playhouse, which rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas as well as brothels and pubs.

The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance. The British Museum has produced, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a series of new digital interventions which appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside the objects on display. The interventions include performances by RSC actors including Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, Sir Antony Sher as Shylock, Sir Ian McKellan as Prospero and Paterson Joseph as Brutus holding the Ides of March coin on display in the exhibition nearby. This gold aureus was commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; a plot in which he was a key figure and the subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Image adapted from an engraved portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the Third Folio of 1663–1664, originally engraved for the First Folio of 1623.


For further information please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394 or

For high resolution images go to register for free and find the British Museum under Arts

Book tickets online or phone +44 (0)20 7323 8181.

Notes to editors

  • Admission charge £14 plus a range of concessions. Tickets can be booked online at or 020 7323 8181. Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays
  • An accompanying publication is available by British Museum Press: Shakespeare: staging the world, by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton.
  • Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter on #ShakespeareExhibition and the Museum’s Twitter account @britishmuseum

Shakespeare outdoor screenings on the East Lawn

‘The Hollow Crown’ is a major new series of filmed adaptations of four of Shakespeare’s best-loved History plays, commissioned as part of the BBC’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. The British Museum will be showing two of these films as part of the public programme for Shakespeare: staging the world:
Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw as Richard II with Rory Kinnear, Patrick Stewart, David Morrissey and David Suchet. Friday 17 August, 18.30
Henry V, starring Tom Hiddleston with Mélanie Thierry, Julie Walters and John Hurt. Friday 24 August, 18.30 Free, booking essential


The British Museum will be hosting two special evening events in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. In addition to the wonderful range of free activities on offer, the exhibition will open late and you can enjoy food and drink at the bar with friends.

Unfolding Shakespeare’s London
Friday 21 September, 18.00 – 21.00
Shakespeare beyond the city
Friday 2 November, 18.00 – 21.00

Evening lectures

£5, Members/concessions £3
London Review of Books lecture on Friday 19 October, £10, Members, LRB subscribers and concessions £8.

Shakespeare and Britishness in the Jacobean era
Friday 28 September, 18.30 Jonathan Bate, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, is the consultant Shakespearean to the exhibition. In this lecture he considers Shakespeare’s evocation of the British Spirit.

Shakespeare in performance
Friday 5 October, 18.30
Chief Associate Director of the RSC Gregory Doran and actor Sir Antony Sher discuss Shakespeare in performance.

Shakespeare, power and leadership
Friday 12 October, 18.30
RSC Director Roxana Silbert discusses power and leadership in the 21st century through the lens of her World Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III, in conversation with Baroness Genista McIntosh, former Executive Director of the National Theatre

Shakespeare: our contemporary?
Friday 19 October, 18.30
A panel of prominent scholars will discuss whether Shakespeare should be considered our contemporary, or as a difficult, distant historical ‘other’. In collaboration with the London Review of Books

Searching for William Shakespeare
Friday 23 November, 18.30
Broadcaster and historian Michael Wood examines how we know the scant evidence of Shakespeare’s life, tracking him through the material remains.

A full public programme accompanies the exhibition.
More information is available from the press office.

BP support for UK Arts & Culture

BP has supported arts and culture in the UK for over 30 years and currently focuses its support on long-term partnerships with four world class institutions; The British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, The Royal Opera House and Tate Britain. More than 3 million people across the UK engaged with BP supported activity in 2011.

As a premier Partner of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival, BP is helping to deliver several programmes and events that will inspire young people and provide opportunities for everyone across the UK to be part of the London 2012 Festival. These include: the World Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare: staging the world with the British Museum and Royal Shakespeare Company; BP Portrait Award: Next Generation with the National Portrait Gallery; The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games with the Royal Opera House and The Olympic Museum; BP Summer Big Screens Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 and Falstaff with the Royal Opera House; and The Tate Movie Project with Tate, Legacy Trust UK and the BBC. 

World Shakespeare Festival

The World Shakespeare Festival (WSF) is a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an unprecedented collaboration with leading UK and international arts organisations, and with Globe to Globe, a major international programme produced by Shakespeare’s Globe. It runs from 23 April 2012 to November 2012 and forms part of London 2012 Festival. BP are Founding Presenting Partners of the World Shakespeare Festival.

London 2012 Festival

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Spread over four years, it is designed to give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and inspire creativity across all forms of culture, especially among young people. Millions of people around the UK are already part of the Cultural Olympiad, through the Inspire programme and Open Weekend.

The finale of the Cultural Olympiad will be in a twelve week UK-wide Festival in the summer of 2012, bringing together leading artists from all over the world.

The Cultural Olympiad has benefited from a National Lottery grant of £16.6 million from the Olympic Lottery Distributor. Other funders include Legacy Trust UK and Arts Council England. British Council will commit £3million to the international development of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad projects. BP and BT are Premier Partners of the Cultural Olympiad. Panasonic are the presenting partner of Film Nation: Shorts.