Anyone seen Shakespeare?

Portrait of a Moorish ambassador (c1600)

Too much culture is not a thought I’ve ever knowingly entertained before. But in London’s Olympic year, the creators of the Cultural Olympiad seem unfamiliar with the term “overkill”. A mad gigantism has overtaken many of the organisers: viz such events as the River of Sound, which saw hundreds of world musicians performing over the course of a single weekend at widely spaced venues across the capital, thereby ensuring that no one could see them all, and with the obvious effect on attendances.

So have we also had too much Shakespeare? There’s no question that “bardolatry”, as George Bernard Shaw disparagingly termed Will-worship, has reached new heights this year, with a flood of productions and events at the Globe, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Edinburgh and elsewhere. It is a magnificent demonstration of the truth that Shakespeare is almost infinitely adaptable: from History plays reinterpreted for Aztecs to Caliban’s speech transposed to hip-hop, a Twitter feed called Banquo and much, much more.

Somewhere near the heart of this World Shakespeare Festival, itself part of London 2012, itself the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, is the British Museum’s exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World. And at the heart of that, surely, we can expect to find the man himself.

Except he’s not there. Through the richly and ingeniously curated rooms of this extensive historical show, which focuses on his world and especially on his London, Shakespeare is notable for his absence.

The first exhibit to greet visitors is the BM’s beautifully preserved First Folio, the bound volume of the plays created a few years after Shakespeare’s death, with its famous portrait engraving. It’s the sole image of the Bard in the whole exhibition: even the portrait attributed to John Taylor is absent, presumably because the National Portrait Gallery was keen to hang on to it for its own Olympic summer.

Richard III with a broken sword (1523-55)

After this, the range of exhibits, although imaginative, is often pretty tangential to its subject. A jug and a cap; a bear’s skull excavated from the site of one of the theatres; a ravishing ivory cameo showing the death of Cleopatra. Portraits, including the sad-looking Richard III with his broken sword, and the swagger portrait of the Earl of Southampton in all his finery (with, in an adjacent vitrine, the earl’s suit of armour). A section on Jews in London and Venice, which includes a truly splendid map of Venice, plus gorgeous pieces of Venetian glass to evoke the suitor’s gifts in The Taming of the Shrew. An exquisite silver-gilt cup from 1605 in the form of a Moor’s head. And, in what must be the most desperate stretch of all: the remains of a lumpy saddle, carefully lit within its grand vitrine, described as “perhaps associated with the funeral of Henry V”. That “perhaps” says it all.

It’s not uninteresting, and it is beautifully done; it’s just not any more about Shakespeare than about any of his contemporaries, and the attempt to make links to the plays (the Moor’s head goblet, the Cleopatra cameo) only emphasises the lack of truly pertinent or revealing material. If we were suffering from overkill in the programming of his works, here perhaps the man himself is suffering from a bit of underkill.

The Lyte Jewel, depicting James I of England (1610)

So, enter the RSC, and the loud and living theatre in the form of video and film clips that play through the rooms – Harriet Walter wracked as Cleopatra, Antony Sher as Shylock, Paterson Joseph as Brutus. These, alongside the indefatigable labelling with quotations, do create a powerful sense of the great body of work celebrated here – but it is the world of the plays rather, despite the exhibition’s best efforts, than the world of their creator.

If Shakespeare is absent from his own show, however, it is not the curators’ fault. Shakespeare is always tantalisingly elusive. There is so much we don’t know about him. His birthday? The date of his first play – and indeed which one it actually was? His religion? (Very vexed question, that.) His whereabouts during the “lost years” from 1585 to 1592? The identity of the sonnets’ “dark lady”?

There are many more questions. So many, in fact, that it perhaps gives a clue to the playwright’s extraordinary ability to offer and survive almost limitless re-interpretation. The blurred and shadowy biography of this exhibition leaves so much freedom for the imagination that “Shakespeare” becomes a notion rather than a historical individual, a palimpsest on to which each of us can inscribe our version. Shakespeare the quiet countryman; Shakespeare the hellraiser in London bear gardens. Shakespeare the local boy; Shakespeare the global commentator.

Who knows? Who cares – what we have is more than enough for a lifetime. There is no overkill here.

To November 25

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