William Shakespeare is like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, a character about whom there can never be too many books. There is always something new for readers to discover about each. So, naturally, I was very interested to read Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor, author of A History of the World in 100 Objects.
Shakespeare differs from Lincoln and Twain in that there is much less documentary evidence of his life, so less is truly known. In fact, a few scholars even argue that he was only an actor and not the author of all the plays attributed to him. To discover who he was, therefore, numerous authors have written about the playwright's environment, and Shakespeare's Restless World is a good example of such a book.
Shakespeare lived at a rapidly changing time. Sir Francis Drake had just circumnavigated the earth, and England (not yet Great Britain) was taking to the sea to become an empire. Naming a theater The Globe was a reflection of the vision that the English would see and possess the world. A wooden ship model, a clock, a rapier, relics of Henry V, and several books are among the objects of the time that spark the essays about Shakespeare's world.
What I take away from MacGregor's book is that Shakespeare was a well-informed man who knew the latest news and incorporated totally contemporary issues into his plays. Because it was dangerous to comment on the royal court publicly, he had to be very artful and indirect in approaching some topics, especially the question of who would inherit the throne of Elizabeth I. It was illegal to discuss the queen's successor, but many of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies are about succession, a topic on nearly every mind at the time.
Heavily illustrated, Shakespeare's Restless World is a fairly quick read that will interest theater goers, history buffs, and people who enjoy museums. MacGregor is director of the British Museum in London. Look for the book in your library.
MacGregor, Neil. Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects. Viking, 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780670026340.