Disguise and Deception
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 14. DISGUISE & DECEPTION - Deception and religion, cross-dressing and travelling salesmen are all unpacked via a pedlar's trunk.
Producer: Paul Kobrak.
A Pedlar's Trunk
Size: H (closed):345mm, W:850mm, L:370mm
Made in: Unknown
Made by: Unknown
Material: Wood, Pony skin, Paper, Textiles
There were all sorts of people travelling the roads in Shakespeare’s day. Many were just tramps or petty thieves but walking amongst them were some people known as ‘pedlars’.
Although they operated on the fringes of society, pedlars were welcome arrivals in the towns and villages of England (land?) because, at a time when a village shop was not common, they brought with them all manner of fine wares for sale. Pedlars also brought with them news, scandal and gossip from other villages…and once they had made their sales, they would be off to the next village for more of the same.
This particular pedlar’s trunk holds a secret that its owner certainly wouldn't have wanted to be known to people in the street. For the owner of this trunk disguise wasn’t just a dramatic device used by actors on the stage, it was a matter of life or death.
This object is from Stonyhurst College
'Any silk, any thread, Any toys for your head,Of the new'st and fin'st, fin'st wear-a? Come to the pedlar; Money's a meddler That doth utter all men's wear-a'
A Winter's Tale, Act 4 Scene 4
- This chest is typical of a type used by pedlars (travelling salesmen) who sold threads, sewing materials and small household items
- The contents of the trunk contain virtually everything necessary for a Catholic priect to perform Mass
- Disguise in Shakespeare's plays is a fairly light-hearted affair and is used frequently in his comedy plays
- Perhaps the only disguise of any importance in the tragedies is Edgar's role as Poor Tom in King Lear
More from Radio 4: Toleration
Melvyn Bragg discusses what had happened in England to make diverse religions ‘tolerable’. What was the philosophy and politics behind the idea of toleration, and does it differ from tolerance?