One Minute Book Review – Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare's Restless World Neil MacGregor

In 2012 Neil MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum, gave a series of fifteen-minute talks on Radio 4 called Shakespeare’s Restless World which took twenty objects from the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean period and examined them in detail, setting them not only in their historical setting, but also in that of Shakespeare’s plays.

This book, published in 2015, can be seen as a companion to the radio series. Each chapter looks at an object from one of MacGregor’s talks. He explains the reason each object was created, how it was used and its context within that unsettled and dangerous period as a way of understanding the attitude and outlook of Shakespeare’s audiences.

These diverse objects allow for discussion on a wide variety of topics. England’s growth as a trading power and its expanding maritime influence are examined through Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal, a gold coin from Morocco and a Venetian glass goblet. The world of magic is glimpsed in discussion of a mirror owned by John Dee, mathematician and conjurer, as well as through the model of a ship originally displayed in Leith. The ship was a gift from Denmark in thanks for the survival of King James and his Danish bride. Fierce storms had prevented Anne of Denmark travelling directly to Scotland and James, rashly setting sail to meet her, was nearly lost himself when his ship was beset by storms. James blamed Scottish witches for the storms and this chapter discusses the development of laws against witchcraft in England and James’ further influence on them. A number of objects touch on the state of religion during the period. The Stratford chalice, a Protestant communion cup, introduces discussion of the changes in religious practice and allegiance during the 16th century. The situation of Catholics and the dangers faced practising their faith is highlighted by a wooden pedlar’s trunk used by a clandestine priest travelling between Catholic households. The trunk contained vestments, an altar stone, rosary beads, and a pewter chalice and paten, all disguised to look like legitimate goods. Apart from the religious element, the chapter on the preserved eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, a Jesuit martyr, executed at Worcester in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, also looks at the horrors of executions in the period. There are other chapters examining rejected designs for the Union flag, Bills of Mortality relating to the plague, a ‘German’ clock, a brass handled fork, and a sword and rapier, among others. The final object is the collected works of Shakespeare known as the Robben Island Bible. This was owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, a prisoner on Robben Island, and has been inscribed by Nelson Mandela. This object brings us back to the present and a recognition of the ability of Shakespeare’s words to speak to successive generations.

MacGregor suggests that in many ways Shakespeare’s world reflects our present concerns. While I can see similarities there are as many differences, it is not an exact reflection. This interesting review challenges Macgregor’s ideas.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is a fascinating book. It is a well produced volume with coloured illustrations on every second page. The writing is accessible and, at times, very amusing. It presents a good overview of the complexity of life in Shakespeare’s times.

The radio talks on which it is based can be found here and an interview with Neil MacGregor here.



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