Among the many items in the great cultural jamboree bag of the London 2012 Festival are offerings from the British Museum and the National Gallery that add a bit of heft to the roster of street art collectives and experimental theatre. The BM's exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, is an omnium gatherum of 190 assorted objects that is designed to put the plays in their context and also illustrate London's emergence as a world city. The narrative of the show is, however, of secondary importance since as an assemblage of Shakespeareana it is fascinating in its own right.
Among the items on display are a sucket fork for sweetmeats and a bear's skull, both discovered on the sites of the Rose and Globe theatres. This pairing of luxury and brutality — delicacies and bear-baiting — gives an instant sense of the immediate world surrounding the playhouses and the mental universe of Shakespeare's audience. Equally telling is an object such as the Lyte Jewel, a fabulously decorated gold and diamond locket containing a portrait miniature of James I by Nicholas Hilliard. It was given by the King to Thomas Lyte in recognition for his work in tracing the royal genealogy back through Banquo to Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain. Shakespeare's history plays were just such a dynastic jewel by another name.
The National Gallery's exhibition Metamorphosis also focuses on a Renaissance man, Titian. Using its three great Ovidian canvases of Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon as a catalyst the gallery has asked three contemporary artists to respond. Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger (it is interesting to see who the National think are among the most significant painters of the younger generation) have been invited to create settings for new Titianesque ballets to be performed at the Royal Opera House and their finished and preparatory pieces will be displayed alongside the Titians themselves. To add to the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of the collaboration, poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage will be versifying on the theme of the Diana pictures too.
The aim of the exhibition may be to examine the nature of inspiration, but since Ovid's tales describe the consequences of mortals becoming entangled in the affairs of the gods, Ofili, Shawcross and Wallinger should be wary of messing with one of the greatest of art's deities.