I’m reading a wonderful book this week, Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World, which takes the reader immediately into both the world of Shakespeare in about 1590, and also into the minds of those who came to see his plays in the commercial playhouses which were a fairly new phenomenon, not one the parents of those attending had experienced just 20 or 30 years earlier.
Neil MacGregor is a marvellous guide. He’s the director of the British Museum and the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a book I have by my desk and will read once I’ve finished this. I am convinced that we can understand so much of a time and a culture by the material objects common (or uncommon) to it. And the 20 objects that take us to Shakespeare’s world are intriguing. A slender brass fork, engraved with the initials A.N., excavated from the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the Thames in London. A knitted and felted cap, almost certainly worn by someone from the lower echelons of Elizabethan society. Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal — remember Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? “We the globe can compass soon,/Swifter than the wandering moon.” And most wondrously, a pedlar’s trunk, rich with disguises, speaking to the theatrical conventions at the heart of so many of Shakespeare’s plots.
A week in which the news has been full of the DNA tests positively identifying the remains of King Richard III, the machinations at play in our own political theatre with the antics and ploys of several senators in Ottawa, and so how timely to read a book like this one. Nothing, and everything is new — yet imagination allows a great playwright to show us the world as though for the first time.
“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth…” (from the prologue to Henry V)