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A Voyage to Shakespeare's Everyday Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     January 09, 2013    
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A Voyage to Shakespeare's Everyday
  • Shakespeare's Restless World
  • by Neil MacGregor
  • Publisher: Allen Lane - Penguin
  • Published in 2012
  • 5

In the steps of his highly successful A History of the World in 100 Objects, British Museum director Neil MacGregor embarked on a new BBC radio series, one that would apply the same methods to recapturing a specific time and place: England in Shakespeare’s time. Now published, this fascinating exercise aims to place the reader in direct contact with specific objects from the time and explore exactly all the meanings these would have had for the average person at the time while linking them to relevant passages from the plays. From Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world to the publication of the First Folio, it offers an unprecedented look at the multiplicity of resonances contained in the texts but lost in modern day performances and reading, sometimes not even to be found in the most comprehensive of scholarly footnotes.

Each chapter begins with one specific object, but brings in others of relevance when necessary. One feels that this could be an endless exercise, that it could be continued until every single relic from the time has been discussed – and that doing so would never grow dull. What one discovers gives us a new sense of the immediacy of Shakespeare’s connection with his audience. We are all familiar with the opening of Henry V, when the Chorus apologises that the theatre cannot present ‘the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt’; but who knew that the audience might very well be familiar with these, as all they had to do was visit the tourist attraction that was Westminster Abbey to see, hung over his tomb, a helmet, shield and sword belonging to Henry V, very possibly the very same that he used in that momentous battle? No wonder Shakespeare thought it useful to apologise for not using the real thing. And though MacGregor does not mention this, theatre historians may begin to consider whether the prop makers at the Globe might have reproduced this weaponry for use in the play, since everyone knew what it ought to look like.

This is the sort of common meaning that is lost over time and that should be difficult to bring back for a modern audience, but MacGregor is skilled not only at recuperating them but at peeling back layer after layer of additional meanings. For instance, in one chapter he looks at a pedlar’s box. This leads, naturally enough, to a discussion of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale and an exploration of how pedlars were both an essential part of early modern society and a threat to it. This much may seem obvious, given Autolycus’s role as both pickpocket and seller of luxury goods, as well as purveyor of (admittedly suspect) news. But the extent to which pedlars, being only one level above vagrancy, were a risk to well-ordered society is only fully grasped when MacGregor reveals that this particular box is filled with all the necessities for a Catholic priest to celebrate mass. This brings a remarkable immediacy to the whole question of subversion in this highly regimented world, as well as permitting a discussion of the persecution of Catholics, how they sought to escape it, and the general level of fear their existence evoked, something that Shakespeare often plays on.

In such ways MacGregor brings to life an entire era. From a fork lost by a patron at the Rose Theatre and found during excavations there he explores behaviour at the theatre at the time and the forms of snack food that were common; a rapier and dagger found on the Thames leads to a discussion of the commonness of violence, of the swagger and display of young blades of the time, of the art of duelling, and of the xenophobic conflict between proponents of Italian-style fencing and the good old English way (dramatised in Shakespeare as the conflict between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). A model of a Danish ship leads us into the realms of witchcraft while Dr. John Dee’s mirror not only explores the world of magic but also the sheer size the world had reached – evidenced by the fact that this slab of obsidian originated in South America. A Venetian goblet with a courtesan on its side allows us to learn just what Venice represented to the English and why Iago’s accusations against Venetian women find such a ready response in Othello. And who knew just how much the word ‘cap’ represented? MacGregor’s discussion of such a cap will leave us never underestimating them again, while the series of proclamations from James VI & I regarding the plague that swept through England soon after his accession also keeps us from forgetting just what a panic-inducing threat that malady was.

The most gruesome object presented is doubtless Edward Oldcorne’s eye, preserved as a relic after his execution. This is without a doubt the most immediate touching of the past possible, an actual body part from a priest executed in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot despite his utter lack of connection with it, an eye that, as MacGregor points out, last saw an angry crowd howling for blood. But the very fact of its preservation reminds us of the extent to which executions were a show at the time, with their own theatrical rituals. One is immediately reminded of the blinding of Gloucester, which is generally considered the single most unbearable moment in all of Shakespeare, though in this case it is most likely that the eye was removed after its owner’s death. But MacGregor points out that in a world where crowds rushed to witness disembowelings and dismemberments, this scene may not have been nearly as horrifying as we find it today.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of MacGregor’s writing is the way in which it gets across the sheer breadth of a world. It is not merely a case of providing evidence for the old adage of the past being a different country; rather, MacGregor underlines that the past was just as complex, divided, and incapable of being completely comprehended as the modern world is. It is an unashamedly all-embracing project that focuses on small, often meaningless-seeming objects only to offer a glimpse of the immensity of the world they come from and the richness of their interactions with it. It is to MacGregor’s credit that he never even comes close to suggesting that he has offered a complete view of the world, or even that such a thing is possible, but leaves us instead with the (entirely true) sense that there is always more to discover, a sense that explains exactly why there will always be explorers charting the tiniest details of that foreign land.

Richly illustrated, Shakespeare’s Restless World survives its transmutation from radio program to book well, with the one caveat that every quotation from a scholar seems to be introduced in exactly the same way. But this is a minor fault. In the main, it is a brilliant book. A word to the wise, however: this is not a book to be read before retiring for the night. The chapters are easily read as well as fascinatingly informative, and there never seems to be any harm in just one more – with the result that the next thing you know is that it is well past your bedtime.

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