Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare’s Restless World was an impulse buy last year. I saw it on display at Main Street Trading bookshop, took it down off the shelf to look at it whilst having lunch there and then couldn’t resist buying it. It’s such a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

The objects include an iron fork  found, when the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames was excavated, in the remains of the theatre’s inner gallery walls, relics, medals, gold objects, a rapier and a dagger and strange objects such as an eye relic mounted in silver, complete with photos and illustrations. Through looking at each object MacGregor explores a number of themes, not just the theatre, but including what people ate whilst watching plays, religion, medicine, the plague, magic, city life, treason, and the measuring of time amongst other topics. It’s all fascinating and informative, and easy to read. There are plenty of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and puts both him and his work into context. For me, it was a new way of seeing into the past, which I missed when the series was broadcast on BBC Radio4.

Read Scotland mapIt may seem strange to include this book in the Read Scotland 2014 challenge, but Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was born in Glasgow and the challenge is to “read and review Scottish books -any genre, any form- written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.”

I would have read this book in any case, but I was pleased to find that there are sections in it that fit very well into the challenge, including a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ ie Macbeth. Shakespeare lived through a period of great change for Britain, not only the changes to be expected through the passage of time, but also changes nationally and politically with the death of Elizabeth I. The big question of the day in the 1590s was the constitutional question of who would succeed her, but in England the Treasons Act of 1571 forbade any discussion of the succession.  But dramatists addressed this through their plays – such as Shakespeare’s dramatization of the Wars of the Roses.

MacGregor covers James VI of Scotland’s succession to the English crown in 1603, bringing the whole island of Britain under one rule for the first time.  It was not clear then how things would change:

Everybody knew that with James as King of England and King of Scotland a new political world had been born. But it was not at all clear how things were going to change. …

But making a new nation turned out to be very difficult. For much of the previous 300 years England and Scotland had been at war; they had very different political and legal systems, a different established church, different currencies, separate parliaments and a long history of intense dislike and deep suspicion. James’s central ambition was to make two very foreign countries into one new state, with a new name – Great Britain.

The succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 created a dynastic union, and a personal union of political authority, but it did not create a union of the crowns in constitutional, legal, ecclesiastical or economic terms. Forging such a union was James’s paramount aim. (pages 204 – 205)

It was another hundred years before the formal Act of Union united England and Scotland into one state of Great Britain. These days Scotland is currently debating whether to break the union and once again things are very unclear – how will things change if Scotland becomes an independent state?

Mount TBR 2014

ShakespeareThis post is also my contribution to The Classics Club’s event Shakespeare in January, as well as qualifying for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014.

It’s also the first non-fiction book I’ve read this year.