Socialist Worker

Objects that bear witness to Shakespeare's restless times

Simon Basketter takes a look at a new book that cuts through the mysticism around Shakespeare

Issue No. 2325

The last thing the eyeball of Edward Oldcorne would have seen was the executioner walking to disembowel him.

That eyeball became a relic. And the crowds who watched his execution in the morning could then go to a Shakespeare play in the afternoon.

Neil MacGregor points out in his new book on William Shakespeare, “A stage is actually called a scaffold, and in Henry V the Chorus uses the word.

“So when Shakespeare stages the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, it is for an audience who would have seen people being disembowelled and the severed heads on London Bridge.”

There is probably more mysticism about Shakespeare than any other writer. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, cuts through this. He uses the method adopted in his A History Of The World In 100 Objects—looking at 20 things that give a glimpse into Shakespeare’s world.

They include an iron fork, a wooden model ship, designs for the Union flag, a clock, a pedlar’s trunk and Oldcorne’s preserved eyeball. They reveal much about the audience that watched Shakespeare’s plays, as well as about the works themselves.


MacGregor reminds us of the grim economic and social realities of a society racked by wars and the threat of civil war and revolution. It is a society wrestling with new ideas about people’s position in the world.

Shakespeare reflected every aspect of these unsettled times. The model wooden boat is not a toy, but a religious offering—giving thanks for the safe return of James VI from his storm-hampered trip to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark.

The book links this to Macbeth’s witches and their power over tempests and sailing ships. Several women from North Berwick were accused of witchcraft, threatening the king’s boat. The wedding party had travelled to the castle at Elsinore—later to be the setting for Hamlet.

The book started as a BBC Radio 4 series, and occasionally it seems as if the transfer to print was a bit rushed. But it brings Shakespeare and his world to life, placing it in its historical context in a fascinating way.

MacGregor explains, “I feel I understand now why whenever there are revolutions Shakespeare is what people turn to. Because whenever a society is on the cusp, about to become something else, they find themselves in Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane, £25)

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Tue 16 Oct 2012, 16:05 BST
Issue No. 2325
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