Life Behind Shakespeare's Art ; British Museum Show Highlights the Culture of Elizabethan England

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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 county, Warwickshire.

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 influence.

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 London scuffle.

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 foreigners.

The worst violence was inspired by religious fanaticism. …

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