20 objects to put Shakespeare in context


With the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth fast approaching, the ‘Bardolatory’ industry is in full swing.

There are screeds of scholarly opinion and conspiracy theories out there, all of which are drawn from the barest scraps of information.

The truth is, we know very little about the greatest playwright of the age, even his true date of birth; the official record doesn’t tell us the day, it gives only his baptism date.

The information vacuum around Stratford’s most famous son gives academics licence to indulge in ‘Bard Wars’ – intellectual jousting that’s all very interesting, but ultimately inconclusive.

The authorship debate is at once both fascinating and sterile. Without new information we’ll never know. Was the true author my fellow Stratfordian, William, or was it Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson or any of the other dozens of candidates advanced over the past two centuries?

Neil MacGregor’s book is refreshingly different in that it takes as its starting point knowledge that we do have about life in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and the people for whom Shakespeare was writing.

From objects as disparate as a model ship, a peddler’s trunk, a fork and a woollen cap he brings context to the life of the Bard of Avon by illustrating the prevailing fears and tensions of audiences of the time.

The reverberations of The Gunpowder Plot equate to the modern world’s post 9-11 period. Plots and conspiracies are seen everywhere, Jesuit priests are hunted down and tortured; martyrdom represents the ultimate test of faith and sacrifice.

Magic, ghosts and the power to call up spirits are readily accepted by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It’s a concept hard for us to comprehend now and one MacGregor likens to acceptance of today’s celebrity scientists; we admire their work but only dimly comprehend.

Plague, pestilence, state-directed hangings and dismemberment, mean death is never far away. An Italianate rapier and dagger recovered from the foreshore of the Thames attest to routine levels of violence on London’s mean streets but also illuminate the status and style of ambitions of the owner.

The book’s glimpses into the backdrop of the lives of the people are woven with an historical narrative that catalyses the fears and anxieties that dogged them.

Issues such as the succession, no more than tabloid fodder now had, back then, the potential to unleash persecution and terror at every level of society.

Bridging the past and the present to aid understanding is MacGregor’s great gift. Much of what you’ll read is familiar, but there are many “aha!” moments to enjoy and to reinforce appreciation of the Bard and his works – whoever he (or she) may be.


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