The inspiration for some of Shakespeare’s greatest work in the form of rare artefacts will be on display in a major new exhibition at the British Museum.

There will be 190 exhibits in the showing, which include important paintings  from national and private collections The huge exhibit will feature

The blockbuster show will feature 190 exhibits, including important paintings, manuscripts, and rare jewels from national and private collections. Also included is an album–First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays—on loan from the National Library of Scotland. The album belonged to Sir Michael Balfour, a wealthy Scottish Diplomat and a courtier to King James VI and I.

The objects linked to Shakespeare’s include a previously unseen page, featuring a racy image of a Venetian woman, from a 16th-century souvenir album.

The image appears to be a luxuriously-dressed apparently aristocratic Venetian, with a panel at the front of her dress. When the panel is lifted, it reveals a scandalous image of a woman wearing men’s breeches as underwear, together with platform shoes that were associated with the easy virtue of a courtesan.  Venetian courtesans wore men’s underclothes under their finery to titillate their clients.

The picture is thought to have provided Shakespeare with inspiration for his Venetian tragedy Othello, by playing on the ambiguity of women’s virtue featuring a courtesan, Bianca. The play’s villain also questions the heroine Desdemona’s virtue, by implying that she may be less honorable than she appears.

Cross-dressing heroines also appear in some of Shakespeare’s plays, including Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It.

According to Dr. Dora Thornton, curator of Renaissance at the British Museum, “Shakespeare reflects the popular image of Venice as a Sex and the City location – the ultimate modern city to his audiences. He held Venice up as a mirror to London, a place to both admire and criticize, and setting a play in Venice that was performed in London, he was also talking about London.”

“The exhibition attempts to show how the world came to London 400 years ago through the realms of Shakespeare’s plays and present a dialogue between the objects and his text, exploring how objects from his real world took him to places in his imagination.”

Shakespeare: Staging the World, which opens next month, will feature actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company performing excerpts from the playwright’s works, which will be screened alongside items including a silver communion cup from which Shakespeare is thought to have received communion and the lantern which Guy Fawkes is believed to have carried under the Houses of Parliament during the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James, which Shakespeare alludes to in Macbeth.

Also on display will be the Ides of March coin, a rare a gold coin dating from 43-42 BC commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC, one of the most infamous political assassinations in history.

To learn more about the BP Exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World opens on July 19, click on Telegraph.co.uk 

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