FIRST FOLIO! Shakespeare’s Restless World

~posted by Carl

Hundreds of years from now, what could investigators conclude about our society from finding a smartphone or GPS device? What about a Styrofoam lunch tray or a pizza delivery box?

In the work Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of An Era in Twenty Objects, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum looks at the lost and discarded detritus of Shakespeare’s time. History, biography, and stagecraft are all revealed through his skilled observation of mostly everyday objects that include a monogrammed fork, a painted goblet, and a model of a bewitched ship. These survivors of time all have stories to tell, and with the help of the British Museum, we can listen. For objects that really strike your exploratory imagination, the Library often has books that can help.

The fork may have been dropped by a young dandy out to show off his status on a night at the theater. A chalice may reveal the secret and suppressed world of Catholicism in Elizabeth’s England, a clandestine world that may have involved the Shakespeare family directly—did it inform any of William’s writing? The book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare explores this theme.

There is a mirror. Indeed, it is a magic mirror belonging to John Dee, a magus and mathematician frequently visited by the Queen. Upon reading about the mirror, it’s hard not to think about Prospero and The Tempest. To read more about Dee, look at The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I.

A handful of Arabic coins and a collection of pins introduce us to Shakespeare’s sense of the exotic and to Tudor xenophobia, both reflected in the plays. The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and His Time explores how the playwright and his contemporaries exploited and sometimes transcended these themes.

An exception to the period pieces is a memorable modern object. Nelson Mandela kept a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare during his long imprisonment on Robben Island, South Africa. Mandela signed his name next to the passage of Caesar’s famous expression of courage in the face of death:

Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste death but once.

Read more about Mandela’s Shakespeare from CNN, seen here.

Learn more about Mandela’s Robben Island experience from The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s book, A Prisoner in the Garden.

Of course, one of the most significant objects is the famous First Folio, the great collection of Shakespeare’s play put together by two colleagues “onely to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow alive.” Currently the library is displaying a rare copy of the folio, and there is also a facsimile edition available for viewing at the Central library, with pages to turn to increase a real sense of connection to the past.

The twenty objects from Shakespeare’s Restless World are loaded with clues to understanding the playwright and his times, and we the readers are fortunate to have this lens to see into that world of 400 years ago.

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