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City Life, Urban Strife

Neil MacGregor of the British Museum explores the life of London's apprentices and Shakespeare's groundlings through a rare woollen cap. From April 2012.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his new 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 8. CITY LIFE, URBAN STRIFE - The life of London's apprentices and Shakespeare's groundlings told through a rare woollen cap.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

Available now

15 minutes

A Cap for an Apprentice

Date: c.1590

Size: W:240mm  

Made in: England  

Made by: Unknown  

Material: Wool, Silk  


Sometimes to find the joke funny, you just had to be there. If you who have ever found Shakespearean humour hasn’t managed to tickle your funny bone it could mean you’ve seen some particularly bad performances, or it could just be because you live in the 21st century, not the 16th.


Some things – etiquette, humour, fashion, language – are very much the product of their times. They constantly shift and evolve over time, and their original meaning can be lost.


One object that has survived the last 400 years intact is this woollen apprentice’s cap. Wearing a hat was compulsory by law, and the kind of hat you wore was your badge of social identity. For us, this hat unlocks the language of social differences and takes us closer to understanding the whole structure of social control.


This object is from the British Museum


British Museum Blog: Using your head by James Shapiro, Professor of English, Columbia University


'You are they/That made the air unwholesome when you cast/Your stinking greasy caps in hooting/ At Coriolanus' exile.'  

Coriolanus, Act 4 Scene 6


  • Everyone wore headgear in Shakespeare's day - it was rare to be bareheaded in public or company
  • The cap, like all clothing, indicated status - and the higher the status, the higher the hat
  • A cap was an instrument of social importance - doffing a cap was as significant as wearing it, and throwing caps to indicate support was an established habit
  • This is a relatively fine cap - perhaps intended for festivals or holidays rather than daily wear
  • If you wanted a favour, you'd take off your cap and be - literally - cap in hand.

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