What do a fork, a model of a ship, and a priest’s right eye have in common?
No, they’re not props from a horror movie.
They’re all objects discussed in Neil MacGregor’s book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects.
As readers of this blog know, I have a bit of a fascination with Shakespeare, so this book is right in my wheelhouse. The subtitle gave me a general idea of what I was getting, but what I didn’t expect was such a fascinating overview of life in the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean periods.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, takes a disparate collection of 16th century objects–ranging from the everyday to the unique–and gives us a chapter on each one. Naturally, he describes each object, its history, its use, and its provenance, but this is all expected content. The lavish photos of the objects themselves (as well as related items) are clear, detailed, and beautiful, but each chapter really shines when MacGregor expands the discussion beyond the basics, showing us the social context of each item. Through MacGregor’s clean, unhurried prose, we learn what each object might have meant to the average groundling in the pit or noble in the tiers. An apprentice’s cap, for instance, looks simply like a cap to us, but if you were one of the Queen’s subjects on the streets of London in 1600, it would tell you of the wearer’s social standing, might remind you of the apprentice-led riots over food prices. Later, when you went to The Rose or The Curtain to see Coriolanus, and saw the cap-wearing citizens berating Menenius over the high cost of corn, you would remember those riots, and know that things might get very ugly, very quickly.
The list of objects MacGregor has chosen is, as I mentioned, varied. He discusses a fork used to eat sweetmeats in the same detail and depth as he does the model ship used as a token, built in thanks by James I for his safe passage home from abroad. Each object is inspected both as a thing from within Shakespeare’s world–i.e., as relates to his plays and the world of the theater–as well as within his world at large. In reading this book, I learned a great deal about the lives and the mindsets of Shakespeare’s patrons, high-born and low, but also expanded my understanding of the period and its conflicts.
This book was of great interest to me, as you might expect, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in history, the history of objects, and the tumultuous, change-filled period of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England.
Oh, and that priest’s right eye?
Get the book.
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