Book Review: Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregorShakespeare’s Restless World provides an insight into Shakespeare and the world in which he lived through the exploration of his plays.  Neil MacGregor, the writer, is Director of the British Museum and has put together this book following the success of BBC Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects series and his best-selling book of the same name.

I found this to be an extremely accessible and very enjoyable discovery of the Elizabethan and early Stuart age of Shakespeare and his theatre-going audience.  MacGregor shows us objects dating back to this period – objects which would have been instantly recognisable to the people of the time – and uses each one to expand on a particular theme.

For example, we might find a photograph of an elegant and extravagant Tudor fork, excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre.  By examining how the fork was made and who would have used it, MacGregor also shows us what the Elizabethans would have been snacking on when they watched one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alternatively we might be asked to examine early sketches of the flags James VI of Scotland, having also become James I of England, was considering in order to demonstrate the union of England and Scotland: a huge issue of debate at the time.

Or we might look at a long-lost rapier and dagger, carried by every fashionable gentleman in Shakespeare’s day, which hint at what was the equivalent of Elizabethan “knife crime”.  I thought it was a clever way to get to the heart of each of the book’s themes.

Dagger found at the Thames foreshore - Royal Armouries, Leeds

Left hand dagger, English, around 1600. Found at the Thames foreshore. From the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

You can simply dip in and out of this book and its enticing pictures if you want to, but I read it cover to cover over five days.  I learnt a lot about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and found hidden depths within his plays which would have been obvious to an Elizabethan audience but which have become obscure today.  I found the book’s content fascinating and I’m quite tempted to pick up my school copies of Shakespeare again.  Highly recommended.

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