Shakespeare's Restless World

An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects

» Neil MacGregor

Allen Lane
Hardback : 27 Sep 2012


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From Neil MacGregor, the acclaimed creator of A History of the World in 100 Objects and the Director of the British Museum, comes a unique, enthralling exploration of the age of William Shakespeare to accompany a new BBC Radio 4 series.

Shakespeare lived through a pivotal period in human history. With the discovery of the New World, the horizons of Old Europe were expanding dramatically - and long-cherished certainties were crumbling. Life was exhilaratingly uncertain. What were Londoners thinking when they went to see Shakespeare's plays? What was it like living in their world? Here Neil MacGregor looks at twenty objects from Shakespeare's life and times, and uncovers the fascinating stories behind them.

The objects themselves range from the grand (such as the hoard of gold coins that make up the Salcombe treasure) to the very humble, like the battered trunk and worn garments of an unknown pedlar. But in each case, they allow MacGregor to explore issues as diverse as piracy and Islam, Catholicism and disguise. MacGregor weaves the histories of objects into the words of Shakespeare's plays themselves to suggest to us where his ideas about religion, national identity, the history of England and the world, human nature itself, may have come from. The result is a fresh and thrilling evocation of Shakespeare's world.

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Toil and Trouble
Model of A Bewitched Ship

For centuries, Scottish ships set sail from Leith pier near Edinburgh to make the perilous journey over the North Sea to the European mainland and to the wider world beyond; it was from Leith pier that Scotland faced the world. In the autumn of 1589, a young Scot undertook the dangerous voyage from Leith to Norway and Denmark, returning the following spring. This young man was James VI, King of Scotland, and his ship was beset by such terrible storms that it nearly perished. James came to believe that the storms were more than just the usual bad Scottish weather. They were the work of evil Scottish witches.

ALL: Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Shakespeare opens Macbeth by bringing us face to face with three extremely dangerous Scottish witches. Throughout the play these Weird Sisters cause mayhem on land and sea, and it was probably this kind of malevolent witchly chaos that lay behind the building of a finely crafted ship put on display in Leith towards the end of the sixteenth century, and now kept in the National Museum of Scotland.

It is a model ship, just 65 centimetres high. Made of wood, its hull is thickly painted in red and gold. The figurehead is a boldly carved gold lion, and on the sides hefty white mermaids clutch their tails, while sea gods wave their tridents. At first glance you might think it was a toy, but it was not made for the amusement of children: this was an offering to God. Ship models now usually serve as records of actual vessels, but the purpose of this model was apparently to give thanks – for survival at sea, and for delivering the ship’s passengers and their cargo from the clutches of tempest-brewing witches.

For modern audiences it can be hard to grasp why Macbeth, whowas a successful practical soldier and king in eleventh-century Scotland, pays so much attention to what the witches tell him. But Shakespeare’s public would most definitely have understood. For many, witchcraft was part of the fabric of daily life, as the historian Keith Thomas explains:

To ordinary villagers, labourers, small farmers, shopkeepers, witchcraft was the power to work physical effects by some supernatural means. Witches were divided into good witches, white witches, and bad ones, black witches. The good witches healed people by charms or prayers or some other form of mysterious activity. The black witches were people who did harm through their occult powers, typically by injuring people’s animals, their livestock, or worse by injuring or killing children, men or women. Out of the fear of witchcraft, there grew a huge literature of learned demonology, which described how black witches flew through the air to black masses, where they conducted obscene rituals, had sexual intercourse with the devil and, most important, made a contract with the devil. In other words they were heretics. They had renounced God for the devil. The Reformation was immediately followed by witchcraft prosecution at a fairly intensive level and a concerted drive on the part of everyone, Catholics as well as Protestants, to complete the Christianization of the population at large. In the process, that sharpened the eye for any heresy. So if people turned to charmers and cunning folk, something had to be done about them. This was particularly the case in countries where the clergy were very influential, Scotland being a very good example of that.

Sex and the City
A Goblet from Venice

Every age has its own fantasy of the great city, where glamour and pleasure not only abound, but are easily available. For the twentieth-century world, New York was that city of the world’s imagining: rich and welcoming, hedonistic, sophisticated and spectacular. In Shakespeare’s day it was Venice, the shopping capital of Europe, home of true luxury and style, one of the globe’s busiest crossroads, a place where travellers and traders, merchants and moneylenders watched greedily as Venetian gold ducats – the dollars of the day – changed hands in huge quantities. All this wealth ultimately rested on one thing: shipping.

SHYLOCK: Ho no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good
man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient. Yet his
means are in supposition. He hath an argosy bound to
Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand, moreover, upon
the 2ialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England,
and other ventures he hath squandered abroad. But ships are
but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats and water rats,
water thieves and land thieves, I mean pirates; and then there
is the peril of the waters, winds, and rocks. The man is,
notwithstanding, sufficient. Three thousand ducats; I think
I may take his bond.

Cosmopolitan and multicultural, Venice was the model of the great maritime trading city – a model that London was not merely aspiring to, but just beginning to realize that it could conceivably rival. The Englishman Thomas Coryate brilliantly evokes the allure of the place in his travel guide:

Truely such is the stupendious (to use a strange Epitheton for so strange and rare a place as this) glory of it, that at my first entrance thereof it did even amaze or rather ravish my senses. For here is the greatest magnificence of architecture to be seene, that any place under the sunne doth yeelde. Here you may both see all manner of fashions of attire, and heare all the languages of Christendome besides those that are spoken by the barbarous Ethnickes

Coryate’s description of the city is designed to excite the English reader. Venice is, in his unforgettable new word, ‘stupendious’: Venice is wealthy, fashionable, pleasurable, a potent and dangerous mix of many different peoples. With its ‘barbarous Ethnickes’ from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Venice is Babylon, where you encounter not just the babble of tongues, but stylish strangers, looser laws and the chance of boundless pleasure.

An object which speaks to all this fantasy is this large 400-year-old Venetian glass goblet. The upper part fits into the hand like a pint glass of beer, but the shape as a whole is different. The wide bowl will hold a great deal of wine, and it perches on a heart-shaped stem with a round base. Just below the rim is a showy band of gold that would touch the drinker’s lips at every sip. Beneath this gold band stands a blonde-haired woman in a billowy blue dress patterned with giant snowflakes, who looks ready to have – and to give – a very good time. This is a glass that to anybody in Shakespeare’s audience would speak of Venice and the sophisticated pleasures that it, and only it, could offer. Dora Thornton, curator of 2enaissance collections at the British Museum, has made a particular study of the luxury goods of Italy.

Product details

Format : Hardback
ISBN: 9781846146756
Size : 153 x 234mm
Pages : 336
Published : 27 Sep 2012
Publisher : Allen Lane

Other formats for Shakespeare's Restless World:
» Paperback : £8.99
» Paperback : £12.99
» ePub eBook: eBook : £5.99

Shakespeare's Restless World

An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects

» Neil MacGregor


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