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Such stuff as dreams are made on

Writing between 1589 and 1613, the height of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare lived in a world of rapidly expanding horizons, very literally in the geographical sense, but also culturally, politically and scientifically. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson called him “the soul of the age” — and how the age inspired and influenced Shakespeare's work is beautifully illustrated by the artefacts presented in Shakespeare: Staging the World, an exhibition at London's British Museum.

The Globe Theatre — so strongly associated with Shakespeare — was built on Bankside, on the south shore of the river Thames, in 1599. In the exhibition, the diary of astrologer and physician Simon Forman lies open on an entry for May 1611, which records his trip to the Globe to see The Winter's Tale. But theatre visits were hardly the genteel pursuit that they are today: Bankside was a rough, dangerous area of brothels and bear-baiting — as a rapier and dagger of 1600 and the skull of a bear testify; all were unearthed there.

More edifying is the silver medal etched with a map of the world, commemorating Francis Drake's circumnavigation in 1580, and a weight-driven musical clock made in 1598: Shakespeare was fond of a striking clock as a dramatic device. All of the items on display — too numerous to mention — are brilliantly coupled with excerpts from Shakespeare's plays to paint a vivid picture of the Elizabethan age that would have fired the playwright's imagination.

The science of the day is best represented towards the end of the exhibition, in conjunction with The Tempest — the last play that Shakespeare wrote as sole author, around 1610. “The great globe itself,” named by Prospero in Act IV Scene i, is manifest in the Molyneaux Globes, made in London in 1592: one based on Edward Wright's world map in Mercator's projection, the other a map of the stars as though they resided on a giant sphere around the Earth. An inscribed wax disc and the eerie obsidian mirror used by magician and scientist John Dee, who may have been the model for Prospero, allude to the 'secret studies' of both men. But most beautiful of all is the Astronomical Compendium, about the size of a pocket watch, made for the Earl of Essex, a favourite of Elizabeth I. Inside is a perpetual calendar, a nocturnal compass and a lunar indicator — it is, as the exhibit label notes, “the Universe in a box”.

Whether Shakespeare was the true author of his plays is not considered here: in fact, it is not in question. This fascinating exhibition leaves little doubt that the fertile mind of a man from Stratford-upon-Avon, fed so richly with the wonders of the Renaissance world, could produce plays that are, in the words of Jonson again, “not of an age, but for all time”.

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Wright, A. Such stuff as dreams are made on. Nature Phys 8, 701 (2012).

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