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Shakespeare revealed in 20 objects

 Posted: 2:00 AM June 13, 2014

There are many ways to gain a deeper understanding of William Shakespeare, but an unusual book attempts to illuminate the Bard via discussions of 20 historical objects ranging from a shriveled eyeball to a plague warning poster.

"Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects" was written by Neil MacGregor, a British museum director who also penned the bestselling "A History of the World in 100 Objects."

In "Shakespeare's Restless World," he explained examining objects can take us immediately to a particular person, place and way of thinking that can otherwise be difficult to understand.

A particularly gruesome object is the dessicated, lumpy eyeball of Catholic priest Edward Oldcorne — which reveals the political and religious upheavals of Shakespeare's era.

The eyeball is contained inside a circular metal holder engraved with the shape of an eye and short eyelashes. Viewers can peer inside to see Oldcorne's eyeball.

The priest had the misfortune of providing sanctuary to other priests suspected of taking part in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He was tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered.

A sympathizer apparently secured Oldcorne's eye and turned it into a martyr's relic.

Body parts of torture and execution victims were sometimes obtained by bribing executioners, who often also worked as butchers. Or, people could dig up bodies and take pieces. Often the bodies of the executed were buried in dung heaps.

"In Shakespeare's world, human butchery was a part of life," MacGregor wrote. "Strolling across London Bridge to see a play at the Globe or the Rose, you would sometimes pass rows of traitors' heads impaled on spikes.... Making the suffering of criminals and traitors public was a key part of the judicial system, and, like the theatre, executions drew a large and socially very diverse audience."

Another interesting object explored by MacGregor is a rapier, a sword with a narrow blade. Rapiers not only appeared in Shakespeare's plays, they were often carried by audience members and members of theater companies — who all inhabited a dangerous, violent urban world.

Rapiers "would have been used on stage by Hamlet and Laertes, and both the actors playing them would have been expert in handling them. They would also have been used on the very same stage in prize contests between professional swordsmen to keep up revenues when there was no play showing," MacGregor wrote.

Shakespeare's friend Christopher Marlowe, a poet and playwright, was killed by a knife thrust in a tavern, and playwright Ben Jonson killed an actor in a duel.

Another fascinating object explored in "Shakespeare's Restless World" is a plague proclamation poster. When Shakespeare was an infant in 1564, one-quarter of the population of Stratford-upon-Avon died of the plague.

In 1592, people could either pay a penny to stand and watch a play at the Globe Theatre, or buy a list that mapped out concentrations of plague deaths in London — and then avoid those areas. In the early 1600s, theaters were often closed as part of efforts to slow the spread of the plague.

We likely would have more plays from Shakespeare if the theaters had not been shuttered due to plague fears.

"He had previously been writing two new plays a year, but now his creative output slowed; perhaps there was no point in producing new works when the theatres could not put them on," MacGregor wrote.

"Shakespeare's Restless World" is available at the Ashland Public Library and through local bookstores.

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or Follow her at

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