Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

If the author’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he also wrote “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. This book is less overwhelming, not just because there are fewer objects, but because it focuses on a specific time period.
There’s only 20 items this time, from clothing to maps and household objects and some were found at the site of the original Globe theatre during the excavation a few years ago. Each one represents a facet of life in the Renaissance, large and small. They include a wall clock, a two-pronged fork, a sword and dagger and priest’s vestments disguised as womens’ clothing accessories in a suitcase made to look like that of a traveling salesman. And not only are tangible objects featured, but also discussed is the plague, magic, the possible successor of Elizabeth I (which was not allowed to be spoken of) and the new plantations in Ireland. The one modern object in the mix is the Robben Island Bible, a book of Shakespeare’s plays smuggled into the prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was held. Another prisoner had disguised the book’s cover by pasting Diwali cards, celebrating the Hindu festival of lights and passing it off as a Bible and thus was permitted by the authorities. Various prisoners would mark and sign their names next to passages of the plays that were especially meaningful.
One of the most interesting chapters is on apprentice’s caps.Head gear was a prominent signal of status in Renaissance society, marking one’s class and job. Apprentices were a large portion of the population (since nearly every male trained for a number of years in their chosen careers), single young men with free time and no responsibilities spent time in pubs and theatres, which could result in brawls or more severe violence, oftentimes with just such a sword or dagger as is featured in the book.
Quite a few of the other items were of a religious nature, as that played a large part in people’s lives, on both a personal and societal level. Dr. Dee’s magic mirror is representative of how magic could be a parallel belief, even in a devout person.The Reformation’s effects were still being felt, though at that particular moment, being a practicing Catholic was illegal because they were suspected of being in league with France and/or Spain in plotting to overthrow the Queen.
There was more about her successor, King James, than expected. I sometimesforget that Shakespeare worked the first few decades of James’ reign, since he is so often synonymous with Elizabeth I.
The ‘restless’ in the title refers to the changes in the world which were occurring then; the colonization of the New World and the increased trade from that and other far flung locations. Inventions and advances of technology, cultural and economic changes, all this was affecting people at every level. In many ways, Shakespeare was the poetic voice of the possibilities and fluidity of the times and that’s what makes this book so intriguing, in sometimes unexpected ways.

This was also a series on BBC Radio 4 which can be listened to online.

Penguin Books 2014 336 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0143125945

5 comments on “Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

  1. Elizabeth Ashworth
    October 23, 2017

    I love this book so much I seem to have acquired two copies of it!

  2. Jackie
    October 23, 2017

    lol It is a book that can be reread from any point or dipped into randomly.

  3. Kate
    October 24, 2017

    I love Neil MacGregor’s voice, but have not tried reading him. Christmas list, I think.

  4. Anne
    October 25, 2017

    Neil MacGregor’s new series, Living with the Gods, has just begun on Radio 4. It examines shared religious beliefs through a selection of objects from the British Museum (where he was formerly Director). The podcast is available if you’ve missed it so far and I believe the book is due in 2018.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09c1mhy

  5. Anne
    October 26, 2017

    PS Correction. As I discovered when I actually listened to the first episodes, the objects are not exclusively from the BM collection. The first three episodes, on the capacity to believe, fire and water, are full of insight and wonder.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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