Review: Shakespeare’s Restless World

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

An Unexpected History in 20 Objects


Rather like the Beatles, Shakespeare has for years been milked to churn out overpriced goods of dubious quality. Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard’s birthplace, with its ‘If Music Be The Food of Love’ café and the spectacularly dull house in which Shakespeare was born, pulls on the teat harder than most. Furthermore, not only have Shakespeare’s plays been adapted in every possible way in every available medium, but the very little we know about the playwright himself has been drawn out as if it were five loaves and two fishes. It is all the more commendable, therefore, that with Shakespeare’s Restless World Neil MacGregor should provide a fresh and fascinating angle on the most studied writer in history.

Weaving 20 objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plots, MacGregor brings to life the shifting and uncertain world in which the Bard worked. The objects range from forks and flags to weapons and Shakespeare's Restless Worldwoodcarvings and chart an era of political turmoil, epic discovery and mortal danger. It is part art history, part political science, part theatre and wholly enjoyable.

The book is to be recommended whatever the weather, but is especially timely in this year of Scotland’s referendum. In chapter 15, ‘The Flag that Failed,’ we learn of James I’s attempts to unite north and south through what Eddie Izzard once called “the cunning use of flags.” Both flag (in fact, flags – there were six proposals) and attempted union failed, the latter struck down in the English parliament, the former rejected by the Scots, but the acrimony lingers and is still visible today amid the flagpoles outside St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. In this as in all political matters Shakespeare could not be too overt. He did, though, offer a polite nod to James’ dream in his 1610 play Cymbeline King of Britain.

The final chapter is even more serendipitous. MacGregor charts the global reach of Shakespeare, using the Robben Island Bible as his chosen object. In this proud piece of contraband an inmate named Nelson Mandela scrawled his signature beside the passage of Julius Caesar that begins, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths.’ It is remarkable to learn just how far and how deeply Shakespeare’s work penetrates human minds.

Speaking of leaders, one of the common threads amongst many of the objects is the great fear about what would happen when childless Elizabeth I passed away. The Faerie Queen forbid all public discussion of her succession, which makes Shakespeare’s histories all the more intriguing. Unable to talk of it openly, the Bard skilfully and subtly probed the issue, most memorably by inventing the rose motif, seen first in Henry VI, Part I. In this he was doubtless inspired by Lucas de Heere’s painting Allegory of the Tudor Succession, which silently – though legally – spoke volumes about the unspeakable.

Just as Shakespeare occasionally used his plays to flatter the ruling monarch, so MacGregor’s book, which began life as a BBC Radio 4 series, concludes with heartfelt musings on the statue of Prospero and Ariel on the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. Given the stupendous quality of the research and writing we can indulge this touch of tribalism.

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