Saturday, 29 September 2012

Shakespeare's Restless World

Title: Shakespeare’s Restless World

Author: Neil MacGregor

Number of pages: 336

Started: 24 September 2012

Finished: 29 September 2012

Opening words (from chapter 10):

For centuries, Scottish ships set sail from Leith pier near Edinburgh to make the perilous journey over the North Sea to the European mainland and to the wider world beyond; it was from Leith pier that Scotland faced the world. In the autumn of 1589, a young Scot undertook the dangerous voyage from Leith to Norway and Denmark, returning the following spring. This young man was James VI, King of Scotland, and his ship was beset by such terrible storms that it nearly perished. James came to believe that the storms were more than just the usual bad Scottish weather. They were the work of evil Scottish witches.

ALL: Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Shakespeare opens Macbeth by bringing us face to face with three extremely dangerous Scottish witches. Throughout the play these Weird Sisters cause mayhem on land and sea, and it was probably this kind of malevolent witchly chaos that lay behind the building of a finely crafted ship put on display in Leith towards the end of the sixteenth century, and now kept in the National Museum of Scotland.

Plot summary:

Shakespeare lived through a pivotal period in human history. With the discovery of the New World, the horizons of Old Europe were expanding dramatically - and long-cherished certainties were crumbling. Life was exhilaratingly uncertain. What were Londoners thinking when they went to see Shakespeare's plays? What was it like living in their world? Here Neil MacGregor looks at twenty objects from Shakespeare's life and times, and uncovers the fascinating stories behind them.

The objects themselves range from the grand (such as the hoard of gold coins that make up the Salcombe treasure) to the very humble, like the battered trunk and worn garments of an unknown pedlar. But in each case, they allow MacGregor to explore issues as diverse as piracy and Islam, Catholicism and disguise. MacGregor weaves the histories of objects into the words of Shakespeare's plays themselves to suggest to us where his ideas about religion, national identity, the history of England and the world, human nature itself, may have come from. The result is a fresh and thrilling evocation of Shakespeare's world.

What I thought:

I don’t generally read much non-fiction, but gave this book a go.  It is a book that through a series of objects describes what influenced Shakespeare’s writing and his audiences. 

It was a good read, although some chapters were better than others.  MacGregor was like an old friend guiding the reader through a world of social history.  Very readable – although a few of the chapters didn’t seem entirely worthy of inclusion because they were about things that don’t feature in Shakespeare’s plays.  I suspect a lot of things would meet that criteria.  It was interesting though and there were lots of pictures to illustrate the points that were being made.  Accessible history.

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