Subtitled An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects, Neil MacGregor’s book shouts ‘gimmick!’ at the top of its nicely-designed voice. Yes, Dr MacGregor is the former British Museum director wrote A History of the World in 100 Objects; and yes, the publishing world likes lists and numbers – they give putative readers a good idea of what they’re buying and help not to scare the horses.
But this book actually illuminates its subject – Shakespeare’s Restless World – rather than feeling shoe-horned in for commercial expediency. The author cites Napoleon’s apparently famous dictum (of which I was ignorant) that to understand a man, you have to understand what the world was like when he was 20. MacGregor’s mission is ‘to understand not a man but a generation – those born in England around 1560’.
Shakespeare, about whose private thoughts we know staggeringly little, was born in 1564. Using 20 objects from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period (apart from one key modern artefact, the Robben Island Bible which disguised Shakespeare’s works and was read by the leaders of the African National Congress in prison), MacGregor imagines what it meant to be part of his world: the wonder (strange new lands discovered by global circumnavigation) and the fear (Catholic traitors under the bed, basically).
He provides something of interest on virtually every page. In a short introduction which is a model of concision, he points out that London’s commercial theatre was actually a recent concept – Shakespeare was among the earliest writers to make his name, and later his fortune: the first purpose-built public theatre did not open until he was 12, ‘a new kind of business, operating on a new financial model’.
The idea of ‘post-watershed’ did not exist so ‘mutilation, dismemberment and execution were matinée fare’ – not so surprising when playgoers might have attended a public hang, drawing and quartering before strolling over London Bridge (past heads on pikes) to take in Much Ado About Nothing.
One more thing: if you’ve ever been irritated in Row J by some oaf behind you rustling a packet of Quavers, then you’re part of a long tradition: Shakespeare’s audiences were always opening fizzy bottled beer and throwing oyster shells on the floor. And at least we’ve got proper toilets.