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This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.
MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. He introduces a range of short interviews with experts on particular subjects, and the episodes are also interspersed with acted excerpts from the plays. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. In another, he looks at The Tempest and a ‘magical’ mirror and then goes on to discuss the intermingling of magic with science, telling us of the ‘magus’ Dr Dee and why he was considered by many to have magical powers. A woodcut leads to the one Irish character in Shakespeare’s plays, a soldier in Henry V, and gives an opportunity for MacGregor to discuss the troubled relationship between England and Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told.
The disc set doesn’t include picture of the objects, but I didn’t find that a problem as MacGregor brings them to life so well. However, if you want to see them, the BBC website still has the pictures from the series, some of them zoomable. In fact, if you’re a podcast person, at the date of writing the series can still be downloaded and listened to for free from the same page.
And if you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series (which I was also lucky enough to be given by Amazon Vine UK). This is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself. Not just the objects are shown, but portraits, maps, drawings and photographs. Most are in colour and many are double-page spreads. A joy for any fan of Shakespeare or Tudor history and for the very first time on this blog I’m going to mention the dreaded words ‘perfect Christmas gift’ –sorry! (But it is!)
NB This audio disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK, as was the book.