This exhibition is such stuff as dreams are made on

At the beginning and end of the British Museum’s new Shakespeare exhibition there are two very different, but equally precious, copies of the Bard’s complete works.

The first is a copy of the First Folio, the book that bears Ben Jonson’s dedication declaring Shakespeare “not of an age, but for all time”.

The second copy is the proof of that statement: a battered copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare that was shared among the political prisoners incarcerated on Robben Island in apartheid-era South Africa.

Shakespeare: staging the world takes visitors on that journey from Elizabethan England to the “brave new world” of colonialism, via the Forest of Arden, ancient civilisations, Venice and Jacobean witchcraft.

It does so through a superlative blend of artefacts, historical context and words from the man himself, both written and spoken.

It is this placing of objects in context – both geographically and for Shakespeare’s works – that places this exhibition above the many others available about Shakespeare.

For many museums it may have been enough to boast about getting Henry V’s funeral armour to display, but the team behind this exhibition have taken it one step further: people viewing these historic items do so while hearing Henry V deliver his St Crispin’s Day speech lauding the “happy few”.

Elsewhere you can see Brutus deliver his monologue justifying the assassination of Caesar next to a gold coin made for those involved in the conspiracy, as well as Sir Ian McKellen’s Prospero reminding us that “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on”.

It is with Prospero’s monologue ringing in your ears that you come to the final exhibit: The Robben Island Bible. This copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare was lent to the British Museum by anti-apartheid campaigner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who brought the book into the prison and shared it with his fellow inmates.

Although they all signed their favourite Shakespeare quotation, Mr Venkatrathnam said he had chosen not to do so. The reason? He loved all of Shakespeare’s words and felt that he would “not have been being honest” if he had picked just one quote.

It is wonderful to see that all-encompassing passion for Shakespeare, his work and his influence across the world and the ages reflected in this truly extraordinary exhibition.

Shakespeare: staging the worldis running at the British Museum from 19 July to the 25 November 2012. More details about the exhibition, including ticket prices, can be found at the British Museum website.