Hamlet, Macbeth, Juliet: Most of us recognize the characters of William Shakespeare. But while their world is familiar, it is nothing like our own. In a new book, Neil MacGregor, author of “a History of the World in 100 Objects,” presents 20 artifacts that shed new light on Shakespeare’s age. It was a time when discovery of a New World challenged long-held certainties. He also explores the assumptions Londoners brought with them to Shakespeare’s new globe theater. The objects that reflect those understandings range from the rich to the humble and represent themes of the Shakespearean age – globalization, reformation, plague, and magic. Diane talks with British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, about what he calls Shakespeare’s restless world.

Guests

  • Neil MacGregor director of the British Museum and author of "A History of the World in 100 Objects"

Photos From “Shakespeare’s Restless World”

Transcript

  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In his bestselling book, "A History of the World in 100 Objects," Neil MacGregor gave readers an account of humanity told through the things we've made. In his latest work, the director of the British Museum presents 20 objects that illustrate the period that produced William Shakespeare.

  • 10:07:19

    MS. DIANE REHMIt's titled "Shakespeare's Restless World." And Neil MacGregor joins me from the BBC in London. I'm sure you'll want to join us as well with your questions and comments. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Neil MacGregor, welcome back.

  • 10:07:49

    MR. NEIL MACGREGORThank you very much indeed.

  • 10:07:51

    REHMGood to have with us again. I'm interested that you call understanding history through objects the starting point for a three-way conversation. Explain what you mean.

  • 10:08:10

    MACGREGORWhat I was trying to say is that there's a three-way conversation between Shakespeare's text, the public that first heard it, and us. And the objects are the ones that I think help us to get that conversation going because Shakespeare was writing for a public. He's a commercial playwright, and the really interesting thing, I think, is for us to try to imagine what Shakespeare's public thought, what they wanted, what they were looking for and trying to understand why Shakespeare gives them what he does.

  • 10:08:49

    REHMOf course, Shakespeare's world seems so distant from our own. You last wrote about the history of the world in 100 objects. So what lead you then to focus on Shakespeare's world?

  • 10:09:12

    MACGREGORWell, Shakespeare's world, of course, for anybody who speaks English, is rather an important one. And why I was so interested in it is that it's not just that Shakespeare give us so much of our language, so much of the way we think about people, but it is the beginning of modern theater. It's the beginning of the way English-speaking people think about the world. Because Shakespeare's generation, the generation born in the 1560s, lives in a time that cuts them off completely from their parents, it's the first generation that is not Roman Catholic in England.

  • 10:09:56

    MACGREGORIt's the first generation that hears the Bible in English. It's the first generation that has no English territory in France because Calais has been lost. And, of course, it's the first generation that is thinking of America as the other English-speaking world. So they are the first people who really think in a way that we can, I believe, understand. And those are the people -- Shakespeare's one of them, and he's writing for the rest of them.

  • 10:10:26

    REHMAnd, of course, you title the book "Shakespeare's Restless World." Seems to me that the English-speaking world has been restless ever since its beginning, always looking, always seeking, wanting what's out there, and I wondered whether that was why you happened to use that word.

  • 10:10:58

    MACGREGORI think -- well, that's part of it because the England of Shakespeare's generation is the great questing, exploring generation, the first one. Francis Drake is the second person in history to sail his ship around the world. Only Magellan, the Spaniard, had done it before. So England, the small country of England suddenly takes on the superpower in what is -- it's like the space race of the 16th century.

  • 10:11:28

    MACGREGORAnd this is astonishing. Every English person knows that their ship has sailed around the world. And that's one of the questing, restless aspects, but there's another one. And it's restless because it's uncertain. There's been the Reformation. The Catholic Church, the Catholic faith has been banished, abolished after the death of Mary Tudor. Elizabeth is trying to establish a Protestant England.

  • 10:11:58

    MACGREGORBut it's under constant threat, constant danger, constant worry about invasion from Spain, so that's restless. And then, of course, above all, with the plots against the queen, above all the Gunpowder Plot against James I, this is a country which believes that, at any moment, the whole state might fall apart because the Gunpowder Plot is to the England of Shakespeare what 9/11 was to America.

  • 10:12:32

    MACGREGORThere's suddenly a feeling that the whole state is in danger. So all through Shakespeare's life, from 1564 to 1616, you've got a country that feels itself in danger, expanding but under threat, rich but uncertain. That's why it's so alive. Everything is changing.

  • 10:12:51

    REHMSo let's go back to where you begin the book with the silver medal that depicts the map of the world.

  • 10:13:05

    MACGREGORThis is a silver medal which you can just get your fingers around to hold. And on one side, it shows the old world of Europe and Africa and Asia. But, when you turn it over, there is the new world of the Americas very accurately described. And it's made to commemorate Francis Drake sailing around the world, which is a great moment for the history of England. It's done and in 1580, he sails around the world, and Drake is taking on the Spaniards. And the medal is to show that England can really tackle Spain.

  • 10:13:55

    MACGREGORAnd, in fact, the medal is made from silver probably stolen from the Spaniards. And all the way around it, if you look particularly in North America, he's put on the map names which are meant to irritate the Spaniards. So it's called New Albion, New Britain, North America, and you would never guess really that this was actually Spanish territory claimed. And this is what every English person knew for the first time. You could sail around the world. For the first time, you could hold the world.

  • 10:14:28

    REHMAnd, of course, at the same time, you have Shakespeare's fairies in "Midsummer Night's Dream" talking about the nation's pride in kind of a whimsical poetic way.

  • 10:14:47

    MACGREGORYes. In "Midsummer Night's Dream," you remember the great words are put a girdle around the earth in 40 minutes. Well, putting a girdle around the earth was something that everybody knew the English had done, and that bit in "Midsummer Night's Dream" is -- it's a patriotic statement just like the way Americans would have felt about putting a man onto the moon and referring to it. This is what makes us a great country. And even the fairies in the wood in Athens know about it and talk about it.

  • 10:15:21

    REHMSo you have Shakespeare's theater company naming their new round theater The Globe.

  • 10:15:31

    MACGREGORThis is because, for the first time, you can think of the world as a globe, and the theater is the place you can explore the whole world. You can find out about ancient history. You can find out about contemporary history. You can find out in "The Tempest" about the new worlds, the new lands. You explore the world through The Globe, and that's why they call the theater The Globe.

  • 10:15:58

    REHMNeil MacGregor, he's been director of the British Museum since 2002. His new book is titled "Shakespeare's Restless World." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. You also focus on some objects linking the theater to the street -- a brass-handled fork from the Rose Theater. Talk about that fork.

  • 10:16:41

    MACGREGORThe great thing about Shakespeare's theater is that it's the commercial theater is created for the first time in Europe, in England in the 1580s. And everybody can come. You can pay a penny and stand, or, if you're grand, you can sit in the upper seats. The whole of society is in the theater, so it's a bit like television in the 1950s. For the first time, you've got the whole country, the whole community there.

  • 10:17:11

    MACGREGORNow, the theaters in England at the time are built in wood, so they burn down regularly, which is convenient for us because when we excavate them, we find out something very remarkable. We find out not just what they were made of but what people were eating as they watched Shakespeare. And we know from this that, if you were poor and standing, you were eating oysters and fruit.

  • 10:17:39

    MACGREGORBut if you were rich, just as nowadays, you might go to a country house opera, you take your own food and your own cutlery. And the smartest cutlery in England in the 1590s was a fork. The fork was a new invention, which had just come in from Italy. It was extremely chic. And this is a very beautiful fork with just two prongs, and it was used to eat sweetmeats, candied ginger, that sort of thing.

  • 10:18:07

    MACGREGORAnd the young man who had it -- we think it must have been a young man because the initials A.N. are on the top, which is likely to have been a man. And he must have had this to show off in the box and dropped it, and it was found in the fire. Everybody, rich and poor, are in Shakespeare's theater.

  • 10:18:27

    REHMNeil Macgregor, his new book "Shakespeare's Restless World." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and author of "A History of the World in 100 Objects," has a new book. It's titled "Shakespeare's Restless World" and highlights 20 objects that shed new light on Shakespeare's age. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. There was a world, Neil MacGregor, that the theater did not enter, for example, the plague.

  • 10:20:54

    MACGREGORYes. This is one of the very strange things about Shakespeare's theater because it deals with almost every aspect of life as we know. But the one thing that is not mentioned ever onstage is the plague. But the plague for everybody in Shakespeare's London was a reality. And when it happens, large percentages of the population will simply be eliminated. It was particularly bad in 1603 when all the playhouses had to close because they're the place of infection.

  • 10:21:25

    MACGREGORBut he never mentions it onstage, except once in "Romeo and Juliet" to the reason that the letter doesn't get through is because they're held up because of a plague outbreak and the city is closed. So what is, I think, interesting about that is that I think we have to suspect that plague is just too frightening to discuss, that everybody in the theater knows that, if plague strikes, they are at risk, and particularly where the theater is.

  • 10:21:57

    MACGREGORShakespeare's Globe is in Southwark, which is the lively -- the sexy bit of London. It's where you go if you want a night out with the bear baiting and the brothels and the pubs and the theaters. And that's where the plague usually breaks out and is usually worse. So...

  • 10:22:13

    REHMAnd, of course, one would want to go to the theater to escape that fear, that ever-present plague, and wish not to hear about it onstage.

  • 10:22:29

    MACGREGORPrecisely. I think that's what's so interesting that, whereas Shakespeare is happy to talk about the things that worry people politically, about what will happen if there is a civil war, if the queen gets killed, all those things, what he's not prepared to address is the deep, deep fear of the plague.

  • 10:22:47

    REHMWhat about the whole issue of Ireland, Neil MacGregor? Isn't that something that people are sort of distantly worried about but fear to talk about?

  • 10:23:02

    MACGREGORThis is the same problem as the plague, if you like. There's only one Irish character in the whole of Shakespeare, rather fascinating. There are lots of Scots, lots of Welsh. There's only one Irishman, and he appears in "Henry V." But, in fact, the biggest problem of Elizabethan England through the 1590s, when Shakespeare is writing his great plays -- just the first great plays, is Ireland. Ireland is in rebellion. And the big business of the country is trying to control Ireland. And it becomes like the Vietnam War, a hugely divisive, difficult topic, and huge amounts of money.

  • 10:23:43

    MACGREGORIt's not mentioned at all in Shakespeare except at the very end of "Henry V." There's a suggestion that, when Henry enters London after the triumph in France, this will be like Essex returning from Ireland having put down the rebellions. But, of course, that didn't happen. But Ireland is always in people's worries and fears, but it's not mentioned on the stage.

  • 10:24:15

    REHMThere is lots of killing going on and death going on in Shakespeare's plays. And there is, as you say, the fear of the queen's death not only by, say, natural causes but the fear of her assassination.

  • 10:24:44

    MACGREGORThis is a constant concern, and there are, of course, plots against the queen all the way through from about 1570 on. And it's always assumed that these are led by the Spaniards and that the Jesuits are behind them. And they're real plots, but the government certainly fosters the fear. And when the queen discovers a plot against her, when the conspirators are condemned, they're brutally executed.

  • 10:25:16

    MACGREGORAnd then their heads are put on pikes on London Bridge. So as you walked over the bridge to get to Shakespeare's Globe, you would pass the heads on pikes of people condemned for treason and for trying to kill the queen. You are dealing with a country that's in a way in a state of paranoia. We're all, at the moment, very fussed about security leaks and who is listening to what.

  • 10:25:38

    REHMIndeed. Indeed.

  • 10:25:40

    MACGREGORShakespeare in England is exactly like this. Everybody's spying on everybody else because everybody thinks that the person beside you might be a Jesuit spy paid by the Spaniards, waiting to assassinate the queen and take over the country. And that's...

  • 10:25:59

    REHMSo it's -- go ahead. I'm sorry.

  • 10:26:01

    MACGREGORThat's, of course, what lies behind so many of the plays about plots against the crown. Elizabeth wouldn't allow people to write plays about contemporary politics. But all the plays in Shakespeare about the king being attacked, deposed, killed, these are really about the fears of the people in London in the 1590s.

  • 10:26:29

    REHMSo you talk about this shriveled eye in chapter 19 representing, I gather, sort of what we think of as Big Brother.

  • 10:26:44

    MACGREGORThis is one of the most alarming objects I think you're ever going to see. It's a little silver box, the sort of box you might keep peppermints in, with a glass window in it. And inside there's something that looks like a shriveled prune. But when you turn over, it tells you in Latin that this is the right eye of Edward Oldcorne. Now, Edward Oldcorne was a Jesuit priest operating in secret and in disguise in England.

  • 10:27:16

    MACGREGORAfter the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, 1606, all the Jesuits were rounded up and hideously executed. Edward Oldcorne was executed, and, as always at execution, after the body was cut down, people wanted to get bits of the body as relics, as mementoes. And some loyal Catholic must have been able to get hold of Edward Oldcorne's eye.

  • 10:27:49

    REHMOh my.

  • 10:27:51

    MACGREGORAnd it's mounted as a reliquary so that loyal Catholics wanting to keep true to their faith could remember their martyr. But what it reminds us of, of course, now, is that, for all of us, I think, in Shakespeare, perhaps the worst moment onstage is in "King Lear" when Gloucester's eye is put out. And we think this is unbearable, terrible, unthinkable, but this kind of brutality happens on the scaffold in Shakespeare's London.

  • 10:28:17

    REHMMm.

  • 10:28:22

    MACGREGORAnd the scaffold is a kind of theater. It's a street theater, and the people in the Globe are the people who've been watching the executions in the street. And that eye reminds us, I think, of just how terrifying brutal Shakespeare's London actually was.

  • 10:28:39

    REHMNeil MacGregor is director of the British Museum. He joins us by the BBC in London. You are welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Perhaps one of the most important objects, if we can single one out, would be the Stratford Chalice because it does hold for all of us that movement, that reformation.

  • 10:29:24

    MACGREGORYeah. This is a small silver chalice with a top on it. It's a very plain cup. It's like a drinking glass, like a drinking goblet, no bigger, made of silver, very plain.

  • 10:29:39

    REHMYes.

  • 10:29:42

    MACGREGORAnd where after the reformation and after Elizabeth had come to the throne, it was decided that the old chalice of the Catholic mass was no longer appropriate. The new Protestant communion was to be much more like a supper at home, a meal with friends. So across England, new chalices were sent to the churches, plain chalices like this one. This one was sent to Stratford in 1571.

  • 10:30:16

    MACGREGORAnd, of course, Roman Catholics would not normally drink the wine at communion. They would only take the wafer. The Protestants take the wine. It is compulsory to take communion, wafer, and wine in Elizabethan England. So what we're looking at is an object that Shakespeare would certainly have seen -- and which he may well have drank out of -- and which everybody in the church would have had to drink out of or face a fine and the suspicion of being Catholic.

  • 10:30:51

    MACGREGORAnd this is where the gulf between Shakespeare's generation born in the 1560s and their parents and grandparents is so obvious. Shakespeare's grandmother who, if she was alive, would have had to drink out of this, would surely have been shocked. She'd grown up as a Catholic. She'd grown up knowing this was not for her to do. This enormous gulf between the generations -- this is a new world imposed on people by parliament, by the crown. And all this is now happening, of course, in English. His grandmother, again, would have grown up with Latin in the church.

  • 10:31:29

    MACGREGORAnd that's what I think is so interesting about this object. You realize Shakespeare's generation had a totally different experience. It's rather like the Internet now. This is a new world. And in "Hamlet," it's very interesting that the young people -- Hamlet's just come back from Wittenberg, which is where Martin Luther preached the Protestant university. But the old people in "Hamlet," like Polonius, they swear by the mass. They use Catholic language. Hamlet, in his generation, don't.

  • 10:32:01

    REHMOh, and...

  • 10:32:02

    MACGREGORAnd this chalice reminds us of that divide between the generations.

  • 10:32:06

    REHMAnd, of course, there is even a newer divide as we speak. As an Episcopalian, I can tell you that fewer and fewer people today at Holy Communion drink from the chalice. Rather they intinct, that is, dip the wafer into the chalice because so many people are afraid of spreading germs.

  • 10:32:43

    MACGREGORWell, this is, of course, one of the questions in Stratford because of the plague. When Shakespeare is born, there's a huge plague in Stratford. He's one of the lucky ones that survives. But, of course, it's believed that holy wine will protect you from this.

  • 10:32:58

    REHMOf course.

  • 10:33:00

    MACGREGORBut it's equally -- but people were nervous about it, but we know that, if you stayed away from communion, you were fine. Shakespeare's father is actually fined for staying away from communion. Now, we don't know that this means that he was actually a loyal Catholic or whether he was, in fact, in debt and was worried about being arrested if he came out to church and for the debt.

  • 10:33:23

    REHMAll right. And we're...

  • 10:33:25

    MACGREGORBut it's a big question.

  • 10:33:26

    REHMWe're going to take some calls as I remind you we are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you've just joined us, Neil MacGregor, director of the British museum is our guest. His new book is titled "Shakespeare's Restless World." Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850, first to Vic in -- how appropriate -- King George, Va. You're on the air.

  • 10:34:08

    VICHey, Diane. First time calling in.

  • 10:34:10

    REHMSo glad to have you. Thank you.

  • 10:34:12

    VICThank you. Real brief, and I'll take my answer off the air -- is for Neil. What is his favorite Shakespeare play? I don't know that I could pick one. And why does he feel that Shakespeare's still so relevant? Because I absolutely feel he is. And I love helping out my children and my niece when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare and things of that nature.

  • 10:34:33

    REHMOh, that's wonderful. I bet they appreciate that, Vic. Thanks for calling.

  • 10:34:38

    VICThank you.

  • 10:34:39

    REHMBye-bye. And to you, Neil MacGregor, your -- first, your favorite Shakespeare play, second, why you believe Shakespeare has endured so long.

  • 10:34:55

    MACGREGORWell, I think my favorite Shakespeare play would have to be "Henry V" because, first, it was the first one I acted in when I was 12 years old. And that always give you a special bond.

  • 10:35:09

    REHMOf course.

  • 10:35:10

    MACGREGORBut also because the combination of poetry and energy and ideas about what it means to be a ruler or a leader seems to me so wonderfully topical today. I mean, "Henry V" is, I think, the great play about, how do you lead people in a moment of crisis? And that mixture of being in the street with everybody ordinary as Henry goes around the troops before the battle, his capacity to be with the ordinary people, but also realizing that he has these enormous different responsibilities, that seems to be something that one can't really hear too much of and think too much about.

  • 10:35:56

    MACGREGORSo -- and I think from my point of it is because also "Henry V" is where this book began. Because at the very beginning of "Henry V," very unusually, Shakespeare speaks to his audience. And he reminds them that they're just standing in an empty theater and that if they want to imagine Agincourt, the fields of France, they have to do just that. Imagine them. They have to join Shakespeare in making together the fiction they're all going to enjoy. And we, the public, work with Shakespeare the writer to imagine a new world. That's what I love about the play, that we are invited to join him.

  • 10:36:38

    REHMAnd then the question of why you think Shakespeare's plays endure to this day.

  • 10:36:48

    MACGREGORThe -- I think because the big questions they ask are either completely timeless in every generation at a personal level. "Romeo and Juliet" is the obvious one, and you could imagine the divide which is there about family feuds, but could be about class, could be about religion. I mean, every generation, there are young people who don't have the approval to marry. And these are predicaments that are perpetual. That's why they're always there.

  • 10:37:20

    REHMNeil MacGregor, his new book is titled "Shakespeare's Restless World." Short break, more of your calls, your comments when we come back. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back to our conversation with Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, author of a brand new book titled "Shakespeare's Restless World." And in it he focuses on 20 objects that really bring Shakespeare's world to us, one of which, before we go back to the phones, is Robben Island Bible. Talk about that, Neil MacGregor. I'm very interested in both the historical and contemporary relevance of that bible.

  • 10:40:53

    MACGREGORWhen the anti-apartheid movement was really struggling in South Africa, the leaders, obviously Nelson Mandela and the others, were imprisoned on Robben Island. They were not, on Robben Island, allowed to have any books. And that, of course, was a great disadvantage. But they were allowed to have a bible. And one of the people in the Robben Island Prison felt the book he needed more than any was Shakespeare. And he was a Hindu. So he covered the outside of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" with Diwali cards and told his warders that it was a Hindu bible.

  • 10:41:44

    MACGREGORAnd so, in the Robben Island Prison, called the Robben Island Bible was secretly a copy of Shakespeare. And Sonny Venkatrathnam -- that was his name -- thought this was one of the things that would keep not just him going but all the other strugglers. We've talked about why Shakespeare's always relevant. What is amazing is how much he mattered to the anti-apartheid fighters.

  • 10:42:13

    MACGREGORAnd Sonny sent the bible round, the Shakespeare around, asking the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement to mark the passages that most moved them. So Sisulu, Walter Sisulu, for instance, chooses the bit where Shylock complains about how he's regarded as a Jew in Venice. And you can see in the words that Shylock uses, about how he's diminished and wounded by the language used about Jews, Walter Sisulu is finding an echo of how white South Africans talked about black South Africans.

  • 10:42:48

    REHMAnd can…

  • 10:42:49

    MACGREGORNelson Mandela, himself…

  • 10:42:51

    REHMYes.

  • 10:42:51

    MACGREGOR…chooses the passage from "Julius Cesar," that wonderful passage when Cesar says cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once. And he signs beside that passage his name on the 16th of December, 1977.

  • 10:43:12

    MACGREGORAnd I find this book so powerful because it lets you see not just that Shakespeare means so much to people at all times. But to those men struggling for freedom and justice at that point, they found in Shakespeare the language to express their own convictions. So the Robben Island Bible is, I think, the great demonstration of why Shakespeare really matters and continues to matter to any English speaker.

  • 10:43:39

    REHMLet's go back to the phones to Lynn in Ravenna, Ohio. You're on the air.

  • 10:43:47

    LYNNHello. I'm enjoying your conversation today very much. I have a comment and a question.

  • 10:43:54

    REHMCertainly.

  • 10:43:55

    LYNNWhen I visit D.C., I often go to the Folger Library. And hopefully there's a Shakespeare performance, but they also had, last year, a small exhibition of Nelson Mandela's art from the Robben Island Prison. And I thought that was quite interesting as well.

  • 10:44:12

    MACGREGORThat's fascinating, fascinating.

  • 10:44:16

    LYNNMy question is, I was recently in Greece and was fortunate enough to visit Epidaurus where there's the only fully -- theater still as it was in Greek times. And I was wondering how the Elizabethan era in Shakespeare were influenced by Greek theater and in any way that you have to say?

  • 10:44:42

    MACGREGORWell, that's a very, very good question. The fact that they used the word theater for the Globe is very interesting, the Greek word. In fact, what they're copying is the building is Roman amphitheaters because they knew those of course from places like Verona in Italy, or the South of France. But the building and the word shows that they want to be part of a Roman and Greek tradition.

  • 10:45:12

    MACGREGORAnd, of course, they knew the plays of the great Greek and Roman playwrights. And Ben Johnson famously says that Shakespeare knew little Latin and less Greek, but he would certainly have known Greek theater, Greek plays in Latin translation. And the fact that they called it the theater, but almost more important than anything, the fact that Shakespeare's works are collected and published shows that they want to compare an English playwright with the great Greek and Roman playwrights.

  • 10:45:48

    MACGREGORAnd in the Folger Library that you talked about, of course, are many versions of that great first folio, the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. This is an amazing thing to do to a playwright working in English at that date. And it does show the English language beginning to think of itself as the equal of the great languages of the past.

  • 10:46:11

    REHMLynn, thank you for your call. Let's go now to -- let's see, to Janet, in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. Hi there.

  • 10:46:27

    JANETHi. Good morning. And quite an honor to be able to ask a question to such an expert on a wonderful topic. I'm indeed eating this program up.

  • 10:46:37

    REHMGood.

  • 10:46:39

    JANETAnd I won't take much time to say -- and I'll take any comments off line. Could you comment possibly on -- I know you mentioned before dangerous times and Shakespeare, of course, needing to mind what he wrote with regards to the Tudor rule. But can you say whether or not, wittingly or unwittingly, he was able to control -- or not control, but perhaps affect public opinion through his historical dramas? And was he able, as he became more popular and older, involved in any way in helping with Essex' unfortunate treasonous acts? And I think that does it for me. Thank you so much.

  • 10:47:24

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:47:25

    MACGREGORThese are really interesting questions. As I say, Shakespeare -- one of the interesting things about Shakespeare is he's the only one of the playwrights in his generation that makes a great deal of money. He's brilliant at gauging what his public want, and he also, rather interestingly, has a share in the catering in the theater. So he makes money if people come. And he gives them what they want. And what they want in the 1590s is plays about history, not just from Shakespeare. English history plays are the great box office success of the 1590s.

  • 10:47:58

    MACGREGORShakespeare follows the questions, the people they want to think about. "Henry V" is the obvious one. He's the great popular monarch. His wife is the ancestress of the Tudors, and he does that because everybody wants to know about Henry V, whether he was involved himself in supporting Essex. We know that there was a performance of "Henry V," which then turned into a demonstration in favor of Essex.

  • 10:48:30

    MACGREGORWe just don't know. But what is very clear is that he keeps adjusting the plays to the changing political reality. So all through Elizabeth's reign, we get plays about England and England as being, of course, better than -- were obviously better than France, but better than Scotland, better than Ireland, better than everybody else.

  • 10:48:50

    MACGREGORThe minute James of Scotland becomes King, we start getting plays about Britain and about Scotland. And there's no doubt that what he's doing is giving to the public the stories that they want at that point. And the shamelessness of producings were "Macbeth," for the new Scottish king and a public interested in him, or "King Lear," the king of Britain and the dangers of dividing the island. These show a man who knows really what his public wants and knows how to give it to them.

  • 10:49:26

    REHMAnd here is a follow-up on that from Vicki, who says, "Do you have an opinion about "Richard III" and how many feel this play maligned Richard?"

  • 10:49:43

    MACGREGORI think the point of the play is, of course, to show that we're very lucky that the Tudors won because Elizabeth is, of course, a Tudor. So Shakespeare's writing for the people that won. And of course it maligns Richard. I think everybody knew that because the point is to show how absolutely dreadful Richard and all those squabbling Yorks and Lancasters were.

  • 10:50:08

    MACGREGORAnd luckily, we have the Tudors. And one of the things you're meant to feel as you come out of "Richard III" is, well, they were dreadful, but thank God, you know, we've got the people we've got now.

  • 10:50:23

    MACGREGORAnd so, of course, it's unfair, but it's really good propaganda.

  • 10:50:26

    REHMHere's an email from Frank in Gainesville, Fla., who says, "Could you comment on the theory that the person known as Shakespeare is not Shakespeare?"

  • 10:50:44

    MACGREGORYes. Because this is a theory that's been very much discussed. And of course we have really no evidence that clinches it. What we have is the text. And I think what argues in favor of Shakespeare being Shakespeare is that publication, the first folio that we talked about, that his friends gather together his plays, and they publish them as "The Plays of William Shakespeare" with a preface saying they are exactly that and talking about William Shakespeare.

  • 10:51:21

    MACGREGORBen Johnson, the great poet and playwright, writes his poem about Shakespeare in that first folio. So the very odd thing to do, to publish the works of somebody, with a lot of well-known contemporaries taking part in that publication, if, in fact, those plays had not been written by him because everybody would know that. So I think that's really the best evidence we have that what we think of as written by Shakespeare, was. I mean, they clearly believed it was.

  • 10:51:55

    REHMTo Danielle in Houston, Texas. You're on the air.

  • 10:52:01

    DANIELLEGood morning. I was actually going to ask a very similar question about the man himself and the controversy about whether our figure from Stratford-upon-Avon was actually William Shakespeare, the author of the plays. And my favorite candidate is Edward de Vere. I think that, of all of the potentials, he is the most exciting because of his relationship with Elizabeth. But my question then was going to be, are there any objects that you would point to, you know, to say this most closely resonates with the man himself or at least the playwright?

  • 10:52:40

    MACGREGOROf course, you may be right. I mean, we don't obviously know definitely who wrote these things. That's why what we were trying to do in this book was talk not about Shakespeare but his public because we can know quite a lot about the public. We know what they were eating as they first heard, to be or not to be.

  • 10:53:03

    MACGREGORWe know what they were worried about, how they lived. I think what we do know is that Shakespeare owned property in London. And the same William Shakespeare used that money to buy a lot of property in Stratford. And it's hard to imagine how he would have done that without making a lot of money out of the Globe, which we also know from other sources, was very profitable.

  • 10:53:28

    MACGREGORSo I think there's a strong evidence that, as I say, it is Shakespeare. The object that I think perhaps speaks the most strongly in the 20 I've chosen in a woolen hat that was worn by apprentices. Everybody in England had to wear a hat -- every man -- made of wool, which would show their class and their status but also keep the English wool trade doing well. And I think it's quite unusual -- and there's lots of talk in Shakespeare's plays about the apprentices with their hats and all the rest of it.

  • 10:54:07

    MACGREGORAnd we know that Shakespeare's uncle was fined for not wearing his hat and so on. I think it's hard to imagine an aristocrat who lived entirely in a court world, having that kind of knowledge of how the apprentices lived, how the poor live, how they talk. It's much more likely that that understanding of the lower half of society, so to speak, comes from somebody who was born quite humbly rather than grew up at court.

  • 10:54:35

    REHMDanielle, thank you.

  • 10:54:37

    MACGREGORSo that's why Shakespeare gets my vote, I'm afraid.

  • 10:54:39

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Mary Jo, who's in Harrisburg, Pa., hi there.

  • 10:54:50

    MARY JOHi. It's very nice to hear this show today because my husband and I are heading up to western Massachusetts to see the 25th Fall Festival held in all the high schools in the Western Massachusetts area through Shakespeare and Company, starting next week, for people who can get up there. The 10 high schools will be performing everything from "Richard III," to "Midsummer Night's Dream," and, you know, to think that this is the 25th year that Shakespeare and Company have been doing this is pretty significant.

  • 10:55:30

    MACGREGORI think Shakespeare would have been delighted.

  • 10:55:32

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 10:55:35

    MACGREGORThe last play, as you know, is "The Tempest." And it is so much a play about the discovery of the New World and what can happen in the New World. And I think he'd have been very, very thrilled and pleased to imagine that in Western Massachusetts today his works are being performed.

  • 10:55:55

    REHMAnd, Mary Jo, these are all being performed by high school students themselves?

  • 10:56:03

    JOI mean, it's really interesting that Shakespeare and Company has such a huge education program and reaches out to the kids that are in the area.

  • 10:56:18

    REHMAbsolutely. Thank you for calling and letting us know about that. And, Neil MacGregor, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a delightful hour talking about "Shakespeare's Restless World." Is there a new project on your horizon?

  • 10:56:43

    MACGREGORNext year, we're going to be working at the British Museum and with the BBC on questions about Germany and the history of Germany, a big project.

  • 10:56:55

    REHMInteresting, considering the discovery of all of those famous paintings just recently discovered.

  • 10:57:05

    MACGREGORPrecisely.

  • 10:57:07

    REHMI'm so sorry we have to end. We have no more time, though I'd love to have more. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 10:57:16

    MACGREGORThank you very much indeed. Thank you.

  • 10:57:18

    REHMMy pleasure. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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