Book review: Shakespeare’s Restless World, by Neil MacGregor

Although shadowy in places, an exploration of 20 artefacts does shed new light on the world of Shakespeare, writes Stuart Kelly

THIS lavishly illustrated and occasionally insightful volume applies the methodology that MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, pioneered with A History Of The World In 100 Objects, applying that form to 20 artefacts that allow us a glimpse into the world of Shakespeare. If nothing else, MacGregor has certainly hit on a new publishing meme. This week I’ve received copies of Gavin Mortimer’s A History Of Football In 100 Objects, James Goss and Steve Tribe’s Doctor Who: A History Of The Universe In 100 Objects and Julian Thompson’s The Second World War In 100 Objects. I have no doubt that somewhere in garretopolis, publishers have some poor hack churning out Fifty Shades In 100 ­Objects.

Among the curiosities which MacGregor selects are an iron fork, a wooden model ship, an obsidian mirror, the designs for the Union flag, a clock, a pedlar’s trunk and a Jesuit’s preserved eyeball. This collection of curiosities more often reveals much about the audience who saw Shakespeare’s plays, though occasionally it reveals something strikingly new about the works themselves.

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For example, the first object is Sir Francis Drake’s medal for circumnavigating the globe. Drake had taken nearly three years to complete his voyage around the world, returning in 1580. Perhaps 14 years later, the groundlings would have heard Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream boast he can “put a girdle around the earth / In forty minutes”. That the audience would have known that the world was finite and could be encompassed is a radical change from the mystery plays of the previous generation. Some of the analyses bring us back to the oddness of the commonplace: a cloth cap may seem anodyne, but MacGregor, quoting among others Coriolanus and Sir Thomas More shows how the cap took on political significances we struggle to hear now (he wittily suggests we think of “hoodie” whenever Shakespeare’s characters throw their caps in the air, which no doubt some director will implement shortly).

The book had its origin as a Radio 4 series, and occasionally it seems as if the transfer to printed book was rather hasty. There are jarring links which are standard practice on radio, but seem ungainly in print (such as saying “Peter Barber again” before introducing a quotation). The end of chapter changeovers are also sometimes slightly forced – a shoehorned “next time on Shakespeare’s Restless World” rather than a logical conclusion. This also manifests itself in not pushing the insights as far as he might. The aforementioned wooden boat is not a toy, but a religious offering ­giving thanks for the safe ­return of James VI from his storm-hampered trip to meet his wife, Anne of Denmark. MacGregor skilfully links this to the witches in Macbeth and their power over tempests and sailing vessels (several women from North Berwick were accused of witchcraft and in particular threatening the king’s boat in 1590). But it is only mentioned in passing that James’s wedding took place in Elsinore (soon to be the setting for Hamlet). In Hamlet there are numerous odd references – such as Hamlet referring to Polonius as Jephthah– which carry significance in terms of Shakespeare’s relationship to James. James’s tutor, George Buchanan, had written a play about Jephthah; Hamlet’s taunt comes just after Polonius introduces the troupe of actors. And although Elsinore in the play is on a clifftop; the actual Elsinore – unlike Edinburgh – is not.

These misgivings aside, there is much to fascinate in MacGregor’s book. The chapter on the pedlar’s trunk for instance allows MacGregor to discuss pedlars (such as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, that “snapper-up of unconsidered trifle”). But the trunk in question is rather different: it is, in fact, a portable church and set of disguises for a recusant Roman Catholic priest. This in turns leads to a discussion of disguise, dissimulation and not being what one appears to be in the works. And there is an excellent chapter on clocks: just as space was shrinking with the realisation that the world was round, so time was changing in Shakespeare’s day. Most people realise the anachronism of the clock chiming in Julius Caesar, but it is more pertinent to realise how profoundly odd and new clocks were to the first audiences. Time could be both divided and standardised.

Only one chapter deals with the legacy of Shakespeare; MacGregor selects, rather than the First Folio, the Robben ­Island Bible owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, with the ­prisoner’s favourite quotations signed in the margin. It is a stirring end to the book, reminding the reader of the profound plurality and constant inspiration to be found in the works. It is a bit of a pity that there was not room for more meditation on the 400 years between Shakespeare and us. Artefacts such as Thomas Sharp’s “tea caddy made from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare”, or the wonderful forgeries of his forgeries that William Ireland wrote in his last years, or even the costumes worn by Garrick, Siddons, Ellen Terry and Macready in their most famous roles tell us just as much about the changing nature of the interpretation of Shakespeare. «