I first discovered Neil MacGregor‘s work a few years ago when I was researching additional tools to help my 6th graders with their history projects, which resulted in one of the most horrifyingly embarrassing moments of my teaching career. (Let’s just say that when showing your students the cool new website from the British Museum that showcases the world’s history in 100 objects, make sure that you carefully select the objects in advance you show in class rather than picking one at random or you run the risk of accidentally showing a room full of 6th graders an example of 18th century birth control. Fortunately this went over my darling and oblivious students heads.) MacGregor, director of the British Musuem and author of the companion book for the 100 object exhibit, A History of the World in 100 Objects, is back again with Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in 20 Objects.
Let’s be clear: this is not a book about Shakespeare. It combines thoughtful analysis of Shakespeare’s text with real objects found in and around London, some even from inside The Globe Theatre, to paint a portrait of the people, their important possessions, and their values, anxieties, and hopes in Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. Shakespeare’s plays are absolutely reflective of the times in which he lived and wrote, and his words serve as second fiddle to the wide range of beautiful and fascinating objects MacGregor highlights. These items range from a dueling rapier (representing the dueling culture of young adult males) and a spirit mirror (reflecting Elizabethan society’s fascination and fear of the occult) to the peddler’s truck (a clever way to hide everything needed for an impromptu Catholic mass, illegal in England in the late 16th century) and the human eye (preserved as a relic).
MacGregor is not quite as engaging, chatty, or newsy a writer as Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors for delving into new historical topics, but he writes with an erudite yet open professionalism, much like a great professor who knows how to deliver a lesson to students with a wide range of academic interests and backgrounds. The book is a much quicker read that one might initially expect. Where MacGregor particularly shines is taking what look like just old objects and bringing them to life. For some objects, such as Henry V’s battle armor, he can tell the specific story of the item, both placing the object in time and history and creating a more personal view of it. For others, such as the Moroccan treasure found off the coast of England, the specific story is more conjecture, but MacGregor draws on specific accounts and people’s experiences to create a more personal view. It is a real art, and one at which MacGregor clearly excels.
Regardless of your interest in Shakespeare, MacGregor’s account is a spectacular look into an oft-discussed but rather mysterious piece of our world’s history. I learned more about the local and international social, political, and religious situations, along with daily life, of Elizabethan and Jacobean England in this short read than I have in years of reading and other study. So if you are at all interested in anything remotely related to this time period, pick up this book…and maybe plan a field trip to London to see all the objects in person!