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Treason and Plots

Episode 11 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 30 April 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers 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 he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 11. TREASON & PLOTS - A tabloid history of Shakespeare's England, told through a collection of contemporary accounts of plots to murder Elizabeth I and James I.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • A Manual for Murder

    Date: 1624  

    Size: H:200mm, W:154mm  

    Made in: London  

    Made by: George Carleton  

    Material: Paper


    Rulers are always at risk. In our democratic age they may simply be ousted by votes. But through much of history and in much of the world, people who wanted to change rulers, kill them.

    We’ve all heard of the notorious Gunpowder Plot, but it’s still quite alarming to realise that during their respective times on the throne, Elizabeth I and James I were frequent, almost constant, targets for assassination.

    A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, George Carleton, compiled a book published in 1624 that thrilled and frightened readers with fifty years of conspiracies and murderous plots – each tale ending happily with the king and queen of England safe and well. He called it A Thankfull Remembrance of God’s Mercy and it was a public success, reprinted three times within four years.


    This object is from the British Library


    British Museum Blog: Spreading the Word by Adam Fox, University of Edinburgh

  • Quotations

    'For God's sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings-/How some have been deposed, some slain in war,/Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,/Some poisoned by their wives: some sleeping killed,/All murdered ...'   Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2
  • Background

    • George Carleton had a significant academic career at Oxford and was also a noted orator
    • A Thankfull Remembrance, published in 1624, was reprinted at least three times in his own lifetime (he died in 1628)
    • The basic premise of the work is presenting evidence of the divine preservation of Elizabeth and James from plots and conspiracies
    • The longest chapter in the book is devoted to the Gunpowder Plot (41 pages)
    • The assassination and murder of heads of state are frequent occurrences in Shakespeare's history and tragedy plays
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