An exhibition at the British Museum highlights the real-life
culture of Elizabethan England.
The portrait of Elizabethan England brilliantly painted through
art and literature by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton at the British
Museum is the most innovative undertaking in the museum arena yet
seen in the 21st century.
Highlighting the living culture of the realm with paintings and
artifacts, Mr. Bate, a Shakespeare scholar, and Ms. Thornton,
curator of Renaissance collections at the British Museum, provide
the real-life backdrop to Shakespeare's plays in the exhibition,
titled "Shakespeare: Staging the World." Thanks to collaboration
with the Royal Shakespeare Company, passages read out by actors can
also be heard.
The main setting for the action is London, although the
exhibition catalog the authors underline the importance that
Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon, attached to his home
From the outset, a bird's-eye view of the city, etched by
Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647 and printed in Amsterdam, gives an idea of
what London looked like before it was wiped out by the 1666 fire.
The old St. Paul's Cathedral, which was destroyed in the
catastrophe, rises in the distance above a sea of densely packed
houses. The London Bridge that so impressed visitors, lined with
buildings leaving a passage through the middle, is also there.
Michael van Meer, a traveler from Hamburg, drew it in pen and ink
heightened with wash in a "Friendship Album."
What leaps to the eye is the overwhelming predominance of foreign
contributions to the visual arts that adorned palatial residences.
Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger made an impressive portrait of
Queen Elizabeth I, painted around 1592, when Shakespeare was
beginning to catch the attention of the English court. The painter's
father, Marcus Gheerhaerts the Elder, had fled his native Bruges to
escape persecution inflicted upon Protestants by the Spanish
occupiers in Flanders.
Another striking portrait of the queen, dated 1583, dreamily
clutching a sieve, is also the work of a Flemish artist, probably
Quentin Matsys the Younger.
The miniaturist favored by the establishment was Isaac Oliver,
who was born in France. This accounts for the French flavor of the
likeness of the aristocratic poet and philosopher Edward Herbert,
while the landscape in which he is reclining betrays Flemish
Foreigners took the lead in all the fine arts. This included
armor, one of the most original forms of Renaissance sculpture, even
though it is rarely characterized as such by art historians.
Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, wore a suit of
armor ascribed to France. Southampton had himself portrayed wearing
the collar of the armor. The cuirass is laid on the floor, and the
plumed helmet is set on a table draped in gold-brocaded velvet, like
some precious work of art.
The portrait is typical of what the authors of the exhibition
book call "a militarized society in which Shakespeare was a war
poet." Fighting raged in the Netherlands during the 1580s, war with
Spain went on through the 1590s, and Ireland was putting up strong
resistance against English domination.
Violence erupted within English society, as well. "'Romeo and
Juliet' is Shakespeare's tragedy of Elizabethan knife crime," the
authors say in their book. Actors and playwrights, among others,
were often involved in street fights. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's
friend and rival, killed a man in one of those rough encounters.
Christopher Marlowe, then a famous playwright, was stabbed in a
At times, collective violence exploded, fanned by xenophobic
hysteria. On May Day 1617, a mob of about 1,000 youngsters, mostly
poor laborers and apprentices, gathered near St. Paul's and rampaged
through the districts where foreign communities lived and worked.
They ransacked small businesses, demanding the deportation of
The worst violence was inspired by religious fanaticism. …