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Disguise and Deception

Episode 14 of 20

Neil MacGregor reveals deception and religion, cross-dressing and travelling salesmen, all unpacked via a pedlar's trunk. From May 2012.

Neil MacGregor, former 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.

This programme was originally broadcast in 2012.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

Available now

15 minutes

Last on

Fri 4 May 2018 02:15

A Pedlar's Trunk

Date: c.1600-1630  

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


Watch a video of the Pedlar's Trunk


British Museum Blog: The role of the pedlar by Margaret Spufford, historian


'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

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  • Thu 3 May 2012 13:45
  • Thu 3 May 2012 19:45
  • Thu 25 Oct 2012 14:15
  • Thu 26 Mar 2015 14:15
  • Fri 27 Mar 2015 00:15
  • Thu 28 Jul 2016 13:45
  • Thu 3 May 2018 14:15
  • Fri 4 May 2018 02:15