Life and Shakespeare

A portrait of an era in twenty objects- the sub title of Shakespeare’s Restless World, was a title that caught my eye. I love finding a book in the library that fascinates me. Enough of last week’s angst and emotion: let’s look at a world 400 years gone, and museum objects.

Photos. There are photos of places I know (Globe, several places in Stratford,) scenes from plays I know: the warlike Henry V of Laurence Olivier and the moment when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup, with Claudius ( Patrick Stewart) in the background. That very performance I saw on my 70th birthday celebration in Stratford with family and friends.

But hold! Neil MacGregor may be a museum director, but he reveals reality- tying together the historic past and the human reality that transcends that past, as Shakespeare did.

The introduction tells of “the wooden O” within which we cram “the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt” and “make imaginary puissance.” (Henry V) I visited the rebuilt Globe: the wooden O. I stood there with three of our adult children, while it was being built, and later with the New Zealand couple on a memorable night whose drama exceeded Shakespeare.(Family story here.) I stood as a groundling in front of the stage for King Lear and wept for him. I didn’t weep for him when I saw him at Stratford in the late 60s from way back in the balcony, though then he was John Gielgud, a superlatively good Lear. But then I was younger. The human predicament has loomed larger  over the years as did the stage and actor at the Globe.

Every single object illumines life in those long ago years.  A silver fork for snacking during a performance, plus detritus from that snacking, gives us a view of the range of people who were there 400 years ago. Venetian Glass  takes us to a commercial and multi racial society- and gives me new insight into both Othello and Shylock. The silver communion cup from Stratford’s Holy Trinity church ( been there often) and the reliquary containing the eye of a priest who was hanged drawn and quartered give chapters on the religious struggles of the period, which were clearly life and death issues, but matters too of political obedience. I rejoiced to see. a couple of years ago, in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, a plaque commemorating the martyrs of the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, who suffered for their ideas and allegiances in those bloodthirsty days. May today’s “religious” wars be resolved by compassion and humanity in less than 400 years.

There is much about the world of the Tudors ( Shakespeare’s history builds up the Tudor reign) and the problem of the succession to Elizabeth, which could not be talked about just as anti government talk is often punished in our modern world, but could be carefully explored in drama.

So the last chapter features the Robben Island Shakespeare – the one book allowed to a prisoner there, Sonny Venkatrathnam. During those years, other prisoners, many now famous, annotated the most inspiring passages. Nelson Mandela, in 1977, noted Caesar’s claim the ” cowards die many times before their death,” a passage that includes, as I read it in this week of his death and funeral, “It seems to me most strange that men should fear, Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.” Walter Sisulu looked to Shylock’s description of being despised as an inferior: “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last… you called me dog.”

That was truly a book to keep him going through long years, and many of those imprisoned with him. It’s a book of humanity and compassion coming from a world of violence and extremism. It’s a book to give hope.

Still not sure about Titus Andronicus though.

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2 Responses to Life and Shakespeare

  1. Mary says:

    Although discussing Elizabeth’s lack of heir was forbidden, it was a topic discussed in the play Richard II, and a popular play it was too, late in Elizabeth’s reign. Apparently even Elizabeth herself noted the reference and told her archivist, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

    By the way, the National Theatre are doing a simulcast of Coriolanus in cinemas at the end of January. Not sure if available in the US –


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