I picked this up on a whim at the book store a few days after Christmas. It was 50% off. It was about Shakespeare AND history -- how could I resist? And I'm so glad I didn't! Because wow, what an enlightening and entertaining book. MacGregor focuses on twenty different objects and uses them to explain different facets of the world Shakespeare lived and wrote in.
Why use physical objects to explore both the past and Shakespeare's plays? MacGregor says that, "objects can do what textual criticism cannot. They bring into view anxieties not voiced by actors, but which the audience brought with them to the theatre -- anxieties which shaped their response to the dynastic struggles and the foreign wars that they watched being enacted on stage" (p. xiv). Why focus on Shakespeare's plays instead of just the Elizabethan era? MacGregor says it's because "everyone can see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament" (p. 284). These plays speak to us still today, to our own experiences and lives, but it's fascinating to find out how people would have reacted to them when they were originally performed.
Most of the twenty objects date from late 16th and early 17th century England, though a couple predate that time but are related to his plays, and one is a collection of his works called the "Robben Island Bible" because it brought such comfort and solace to apartheid prisoners in 1970s South Africa. They range from archaeological finds dug up in the Thames' muddy bank to religious relics carefully preserved through the centuries, from a silver Eucharist cup to an apprentice's woolen cap to Henry V's funeral decorations. Each one gets its own chapter, but they're not the only things MacGregor discusses -- he brings in maps, paintings, historical documents, journals, and so much more, all to explain the significance of those twenty objects.
I enjoyed this book so much, learned so many things from it, that I've added Neil MacGregor's book A History of the World in 100 Objects to my to-read least. I've gained so many new insights into his plays! Yes, even into Hamlet, which I've been studying since I was seventeen. For instance, I'll never again view Hamlet's refusal to drink from the cup Claudius proffers in quite the same way now that I've read how dangerous it was in Shakespeare's day to refuse to drink from the Communion cup in the state-approved church. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys either history or Shakespeare. Or both, like me.
This is my first book read and reviewed for both the History Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR challenge.