As Director of the British Museum in London, Neil MacGregor deals in artifacts. And so as a sequel to his New York Times best-seller A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011), the renowned museologist turned his attention to extant memorabilia from Shakespeare’s lifetime to elucidate the period and to give a glimpse into the experiences of the people who inhabited it and attended his plays. While Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects is not, and does not claim to be, a complete narrative history of the times or a full-blown dramaturgical analysis of the Bard’s oeuvre (it reads more like an exhibition catalogue), it does offer a fascinating collection of twenty chapter-length essays (first presented by the author as a BBC Radio 4 series), using the objects as a springboard to explore key issues of the day and in Shakespeare’s work. Citing Napoleon’s famous observation, “to understand a man, you need to understand the world when he was twenty years old,” MacGregor aims to contextualize the playwright through the material culture of his generation, born in England around 1560.
Numbering among the select vintage items from the British national collection considered by MacGregor are the circumnavigation medal of explorer Sir Francis Drake, a physical representation of the age of discovery and global expansion that recalls Oberon’s comment, “We the globe can compass soon,” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the battle gear of Henry V, preserved in the Crypt Museum at Westminster Abbey, which the king might actually have used at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, recreated in Shakespeare’s history play on the eponymous monarch; and the so-called pedlar’s trunk from Stonyhurst, containing the vestments and liturgical objects of an undercover Catholic priest, which he relates both to the leitmotifs of disguise and mistaken identity in As You Like It and King Lear, and to the rogue Autolycus’s suitcase of pilfered wares in The Winter’s Tale.
In a compelling chapter on “The Theatres of Cruelty,” the desiccated eyeball of the Blessed Edward Oldcorne, a Catholic martyr brutally tortured and executed in 1606, finds a parallel in the horrifying blinding of Gloucester in King Lear. Expanding on the socio-political context of the gruesome relic, MacGregor reminds us of the once common sight of decapitated heads of traitors impaled on the pikes of London Bridge, which theater-goers crossed en route to the South Bank and Shakespeare’s Globe. It is no wonder, then, that public executions play such a prominent role in the bloody Titus Andronicus, or that the heads of the main conspirators against Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) are sent to London for display at the end of Richard II.
One of MacGregor’s most amusing chapters is “Snacking through Shakespeare,” which considers the contemporary usage of an elegant brass-handled iron sucket fork from the 1590s. Excavated in London’s Rose Theatre, it gives proof of the Elizabethan audience’s taste for the variety of refreshments hawked during performances, reveals its owner’s desire to impress the crowd with the latest Italian manner of dining (most Englishmen of the time ate with their fingers), and evokes the lively atmosphere of a public matinee. Perhaps the least convincing passage of the book is the tenuous connection MacGregor makes between the lidded Stratford Chalice, a silver Protestant communion vessel, and the cup from which Queen Gertrude unwittingly drinks the poison King Claudius intended for her son in Hamlet. But despite a few seemingly forced associations, the book is engaging and well written, and offers valuable insights into the fabric of Shakespeare’s universe. (New York: Viking, Penguin Books, 2013)