British Museum Director Neil MacGregor presents Shakespeare's Restless World, a new series for Radio 4, (broadcast from 16 April at 1.45pm and repeated at 7.45pm) and part of a wider BBC Shakespeare Season.
The 20-part series looks at the world through the eyes of Shakespeare's audience by exploring objects from that turbulent period.
Examining these objects, Neil discusses how Elizabethan playgoers understood and made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived. With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.
Gwyneth Williams, Controller, BBC Radio 4 says: “I am thrilled to welcome Neil MacGregor back to Radio 4 to present our Shakespeare series. His perspective, as you would expect, is original and inspiring and I recommend these programmes as a framework within which to approach and enjoy this special celebratory year of Shakespeare. Scholarship and a unique understanding of significant objects of the period bring alive the restless years and uncertain times in which Shakespeare wrote. Thus, through Neil’s analysis, just as we are enlightened historically, we are reminded again of our common humanity.”
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, says: “This series gives us a chance to understand what life was like in the turbulent world of William Shakespeare. Using 20 objects from the period - some grand, some everyday things - we can explore what the world looked like to the groundlings in the Globe and try to understand Shakespeare’s restless world.”
Shakespeare scholars and historians share their expertise on the wide ranging subjects raised in the series - from witchcraft and warfare to fencing and food, and from luxury trade and religion to cruelty and deception. Such experts as the eminent historians Eamon Duffy and Keith Thomas, Chief Associate Director of the RSC, Greg Doran, National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner and fight director Alison de Burgh, discuss the issues these objects raise - everything from exploration and discovery to violence, entertainment and the plague. Bringing to life some of Shakespeare's inspiring speeches are actors, including Rory Kinnear, Don Warrington, Don Gilet, Hattie Morahan, David Warner and John Heffernan.
The objects are drawn not only from the British Museum, but from an eclectic array of collections around the country including: The National Museum of Wales, the National Museum of Scotland, The Royal Armouries at Leeds, Edinburgh University Library, Westminster Abbey, the British Library and Stonyhurst College. They vary from the magnificent to the prosaic, from ceremonial to the everyday.
Audiences will be able to follow the series, and find a wealth of extra content online. The site, built by the BBC working in collaboration with the British Museum, will follow a similar model to the award-winning A History of the World site.
The programmes will be made permanently available to listen to online and download. The objects, from the British Museum and institutions across the UK, can be viewed in deep zoom, along with in depth information about the object and their place in the culture and society of Shakespeare's world.
The site will feature video clips, along with a rich selection of related programmes from the Radio 4 archive. The audience will be invited to comment and debate on the site and across social media. The site will remain online and accessible across mobiles and tablet devices.
Episodes and objects
Circumnavigation Medal - 16th April
This medal of 1589 celebrated the second circumnavigation of the world, and the first by an Englishman, Francis Drake. For the first time, England was engaging with the whole world.
Bishopton cup - 17th April
A Protestant communion cup from a Stratford chapel makes manifest the religious changes in Shakespeare’s background.
(Lender: Holy Trinity Church)
Fork - 18th April
Excavated at the Rose Theatre on the South Bank, this fork throws light on visiting a Shakespearean theatre.
(Lender: Museum of London)
De Heere’s Allegory of the Tudor Succession - 19th April
Painted in 1571 to justify and celebrate Elizabeth I’s position in the Tudor succession, by the 1590s, with no direct Tudor heir, this image had very different implications.
(Lender: National Museum of Wales)
Rapier and Dagger - 20th April
Weapons lost on Bankside help address issues of culture and violence in Shakespeare’s world and plays.
(Lender: Royal Armouries at Leeds)
Funeral Achievements of Henry V - 23th April
As a tourist attraction in Westminster Abbey, the war gear of King Henry V parallels the view of English history depicted on the Elizabeth stage.
(Lender: Westminster Abbey)
Derricke’s Image of Irelande - 24nd April
This woodcut offers a very rare visual impression of the troubles and tragedies of Elizabethan Ireland.
(Lender: Edinburgh University Library)
Woollen cap - 25rd April
When everyone always wore a hat, the sort of hat you wore marked out your place in society: this woollen cap was probably the Sunday best of an artisan or apprentice.
Dee’s mirror - 26th April
Spirits were everywhere in Shakespeare’s world and in his plays: angels, devils, ghosts and fairies. Prospero in The Tempest and John Dee in real life each engaged in traffic with the world beyond sight.
Ship model - 27th April
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has hugely influenced the portrayal and perception of the witch; this model of a ship from Scotland helps us understand the place of witchcraft at the time, and especially in the mind of King James VI and I.
(Lender: National Museum of Scotland)
Carleton’s A Thankful Remembrance - 30th April
God is with us: this book by a Jacobean bishop looks back across decades of real and alleged Catholic plots and assassination attempts on the lives of Elizabeth I and James I to offer an interpretation of history based on ideas of providential survival and God’s favour.
(Lender: British Library)
Venetian glass - 1st May
A beautiful woman painted on Venetian glass provides the opportunity to look at Shakespeare’s representation of Venice as both dangerous and enticing, a model for London and a warning.
The Salcombe Treasure - 2nd May
My enemy’s enemy is my friend: a hoard of Moroccan gold allows us to unpick the surprising engagement of England and Morocco in the years around 1600, when Spain was the common enemy, and to assess what exactly was a Moor.
Pedlar’s trunk - 3rd May
Disguise and deception are routine plot elements of Shakespeare’s plays. A trunk of fabrics and baubles turns out to be something quite different.
(Lender: Stonyhurst College)
Union flag designs - 4th May
Just because a king of Scots also became king of England, it did not create a new nation. A set of flag designs that lie behind the Union Jack makes clear the problems that resulted.
(Lender: National Library of Scotland)
Musical Clock - 7th May
Clocks strike throughout Shakespeare’s plays and clocks were necessary to get the audience to this new creation, public commercial theatre.
Proclamation - 8th May
1603 saw not only a new king but the worst plague outbreak since the Black Death. Proclamations and orders issued during that year make clear the impact of this devastating outbreak on the country and on the playhouses.
(Lender: British Library)
Arches of Triumph print - 9th May
In many of Shakespeare’s plays great cities like Venice and especially Rome stand in for London; in 1604 London itself was transformed into a fantasy Rome to celebrate King James I’s coronation.
Eye relic - 10th May
A human eyeball in a silver setting makes real the theatre of cruelty that was performed in the real world as well as on stage.
(Lender: Stonyhurst College)
Robben Island Bible - 11th May
The publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays in 1623 began the process of turning an early modern playwright into a global phenomenon. A volume of his collected plays smuggled into Robben Island prison in South Africa was annotated by the prisoners there, and gives a sense of this unique place in world literature.