If someone wasn’t wearing their headgear it was a pretty good indication that they weren’t well, so when Ophelia notes to her father “My lord, as I was sewing in my closet, / Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head…” it suggested the privy councillor and us that something is terribly wrong with the young prince. Arguably it could also indicate there’s something terribly wrong with the production if that line’s in there and no one else is behatted in some way.
Broadcast a few months ago on Radio 4 and now out on cd, Shakespeare’s Restless World, one of the epicentres of the BBC’s year long coverage of the bard’s work, seeks to investigate his plays, his life and his world through the objects of the British Museum and further afield. Presented by Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, it’s an audio adjunct to the Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition (part of the cultural Olympiad) in the style of his previous History of the World in 100 Objects.
As with that series, the objects are really enry points into exploring a particular aspect of the Elizabethan and Jacobian world and so a rather anonymous apprentice’s cap inspires a discussion of the class system, social propriety and rioting, feeding into the series other aim of finding parallels with contemporary Britain. In another episode MacGreggor indicates chillingly it was quite natural then as now for young men to carry knives around ready to defend themselves.
These twenty episodes do cover similar ground to the catalogue which accompanies the British Library’s exhibition but there’s a much greater, perhaps more convincing effort to link the objects to Shakespeare’s plays. When considering The Stratford Chalice in the second programme in relation to the country’s religious strife as a symbol of the new Protestant faith, he explains that the language in the Ghost of Hamlet Snr's speech is of the old religion, of the old ways.
Sometimes the themes and objects have been selected to indicate what isn’t in the plays. In an episode about Plague Proclamations, we’re reminded that even though pestilence was prevalent in the period and a massive influence structurally on Shakespeare’s career, as far as we know no plays were written on the topic and it was barely mention in the canon except for briefly in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a contrast from public executions which were bloodily dramatised.
The list of contributors is smaller than A History of the World, relying on some of the usual academics like Bate and Shapiro along with curators across the country who handle the objects like Jan Graffius, curator of the Stonyhurst collection who hold the Oldcorne Reliquary. In an episode about duelling, Alison de Burgh, Britain's first female theatre fight director entertainingly teaches MacGreggor how to hold his own. Luckily, has he says "Health and Safety regulations kicked in and stopped her killing me”.
Threaded throughout the episodes are a collection of excepts from the plays brilliantly read by the likes of David Warner, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rory Kinnear. In episode two there’s a brief part of the duel scene in which Don Warrington gives us his Claudio, and we also later hear the aforementioned closet flashback. Frustratingly a cast list isn’t included in the accompanying booklet (or a full list of contributors for that matter) but then that doesn’t include images of all the objects either.
But, other than duration, it's too short, that’s about the only criticism I have of this fascinating release which constantly surprises with its nuggets of tangential information and enthralling stories. The Shakespeare’s Restless World website of course has all the episodes to listen to again, download as podcasts and complete transcripts so you might question what’s to gained from buying the cds. But for collectors of Shakespeareana they’re probably essential.
Shakespeare's Restless World is out now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.