In 2012, as the world’s gaze turned on London for the Olympic year, the British Museum explored this capital city from a slightly different viewpoint – by trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived here over 400 years ago.
In Shakespeare’s Restless World, a series presented on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year and now accompanied by the book (released 27th September), we explored the stories of 20 objects – some grand, some everyday things – that help us imagine what the world looked like to the groundlings inside the Globe theatre around 1600.
I talked to Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on the fascinating issues these 20 objects raised – everything from exploration and discovery abroad to entertainment, monarchy and even the deadly threat of plague closer to home.
As well as objects from the British Museum, many are from collections across the UK. I have travelled across Britain to get a closer look at what these objects, such as a fork found on the site of the Rose Theatre, a book of royal murder plots, and sunken treasure from Morocco, can reveal to us about daily life, national politics and global economics at the turn of the 16th century.
Throughout the book, there is something else that allows us to picture these turbulent times so vividly: the works of William Shakespeare himself. In the chapters, we delve into his plots and characters, his speeches and soliloquies, to seek glimpses of the uncertain times in which he lived.
Right now, the British Museum is presenting a major exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, bringing together a vast and eclectic array of Elizabethan and Jacobean objects, including the 20 featured in the radio series and book. This exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. Featured alongside these objects are digital media and performance created in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Director of the British Museum
Author of Shakespeare’s Restless World
(accompanying the BBC Radio 4 series – Shakespeare’s Restless World)