19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A marvellous book,
This review is from: Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects (Hardcover)
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This is the best book about Shakespeare I've read since James Shapiro's "1599" - and I've read many. It takes as its theme not Shakespeare himself but the restless, thrilling and dangerous times he lived in, all of their conflicts and opportunities reflected in his plays.
Repeating the winning format of "A History of the World in 100 objects", Neil MacGregor has selected twenty iconic objects from the early modern period, encompassing the entire range of society from dynastic depictions of the Tudor succession to the woolen cap worn by a London apprentice, and made each the basis of an illustrated essay explaining its historical context and applying it to scenes in Shakespeare's work. If this sounds dull, rest assured that it isn't - quite the reverse. A medallion comemmorating Drake's global navigation reminds us that this human achievement altered people's perception of their place in the universe as radically as the 1968 Earthrise photograph taken from Apollo 8. A pedlar's trunk turns out to be a disguised portable kit for the underground celebration of the Catholic Mass, as well as a window opened into the itinerant chancers who inhabit the fringe of society. A more gruesome emblem of religious intolerence is the eye of a Catholic martyr encased in siver, reminding us of the unsettling appetite for violence as theatre that fed the audiences who first witnessed the blinding of Gloucester on stage. And once you've read MacGregor's desciption of a soft-porn illustration on a Venetian drinking glass, you'll have a fresh insight into the prejudices against Venetian women that sealed poor Desdemona's fate.
Many books that recreate a successful radio series don't translate all that well to the literary format (Melvyn Bragg is an offender in this respect, whose books read like broadcasts hastily revised by staffers, very much an inferior product to the original excellent programmes). Neil MacGregor is a welcome exception; erudite but supremely accessible, each of these short essays could be savoured alone as bedtime reading, but they are so compelling that you may well feel the desire to stay up late reading just one more. If you are daunted by the prospect of Shakespeare - too alien, too intellectual - give this a try and you'll be converted. If you are already knowledgable about the Bard and his times, read this and you'll discover much that you were unaware of. I commend it to you unreservedly. It's a marvellous book - and the final chapter looks at the way Shakespeare continues to resonate with readers today, taking as its text the remarkable Complete Works that sustained the anti-apartheid campaigners in Robben Island.