“Give me the map.” – King Lear
Along with Her Majesty The Queen, Sebastian Coe, and Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, Shakespeare is having a great year. As the headlining act of the London 2012 “Cultural Olympiad”, Shakespeare’s life and works have featured in heavy rotation across a range of media (stage, screen, television, radio &etc). One of the most outstanding offerings of this landmark ‘Bardfest’ is a stunning exhibition at the British Museum mounted in collaboration with the RSC.
“Shakespeare: Staging the World” focuses on the playwright's world, both real and imagined. It takes us on a journey from medieval England and the forest of Arden, to Venice, Rome and finally to Prospero's magical isle.
Flying in the face of conspiracy theories, such as those espoused by the recent film “Anonymous”, the British Museum’s exhibition confirms William Shakespeare as the author of the greatest works of English literature, and posits Warwickshire firmly as the undisputed site of his inspiration and imagination.
Without doubt, Shakespeare’s Warwickshire origins were extremely important to him, and his works are steeped in references to local places, wisdom, tradition and folklore. His plays reveal a country dweller’s knowledge and appreciation of the romance and reality of rural life. This was delightfully realised in the exemplary British Museum show.
At the heart of the exhibition is the magnificent Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire. This map was one of a set of four tapestry maps made in the 1580s. They were commissioned by Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) to hang in his new home at Weston in Warwickshire. The maps were made at the Sheldon tapestry works at Barcheston, Warwickshire. The tapestry works were set up by Ralph's father, William, with the aim of creating a tapestry-making industry in Britain by training locals to become weavers.
This extraordinary work of art – hand-woven in Warwickshire – is a pictorial record of the county in Elizabethan times, showing the River Avon, the Forest of Arden, the hills of Brailles and Burton Dassett, as well as fields, towns, villages and great houses of the gentry. It allowed me to see my world as Shakespeare saw it.
With delight, I surveyed the territory I call home, familiar to me even with archaic, 16th century spellings: Warwicke, Lemmington, Kenelmworth, Coventrie, Stretford, Wasbvrton, Welsborn, Charlcot and Sherborn. Although rendered as Bearfoote, my beloved Barford was indeniably present - immediately distinguishable by its lovely bridge crossing the Avon.
I was surprised to find that this precious artifact, previously unknown to me, is held in the collection of the Warwickshire Museum Service. It can usually be seen in all its glory at the Market Hall Museum in Warwick. As is often the case, it is only in traveling great distances that we are lead to discover and appreciate the rare treasures that lie close to home.
“Shakespeare: Staging the World” - Continues until 25 November 2012 www.britishmuseum.org