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Shakespeare and His World: Top Ten Objects (Part 1)

Take a look at the first five Objects of the Week of the MOOC 'Shakespeare and His World' course taught by Jennifer Reid and Professor Jonathan Bate in this two-part blog post.

Jennifer Reid

For the last ten weeks I have had the pleasure of mentoring on the MOOC 'Shakespeare and His World' alongside Professor Jonathan Bate. This ten week course was a partnership between the SBT and the University of Warwick and it was the second time that the course has been run. The first time I participated as a learner, so it was interested to be on the other side of the screen this time! In the end we had over 15,500 learners signed up from around 65 countries – a truly international audience which brought some great perspectives to the discussion threads.

Each of the ten weeks focused on a different element of Shakespeare’s world which was supported by a focus play and some fantastic objects from the SBT collection. Each week Jonathan and I filmed a video in which we addressed some of the questions and discussions that had arisen throughout the week, gave some top tips for the week ahead, and talked about the 'Object of the Week' as voted for by the learners. Spread over two blogs posts, I’d like to share the top object from each week, highlighting some of the things that captured the imaginations of the learners.

Week 1: The Parish Register
Week 1 was titled 'Shakespeare and His World' and was an introductory week, giving a broad introduction to Shakespeare’s life and the people that were important to him. Of course the object that really captured this week was the Parish Register, which shows William Shakespeare’s baptism recorded on 26 April 1564. Learners were interested as to why there were three 'x's beside Shakespeare’s name, and had some great ideas as to why this might be so, but the answer is much more simple; these were added at a later date to highlight where on the page Shakespeare’s name fell.

Find out more about the Parish Register.

Parish Register
Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Week 2: Christopher Saxton’s Map of Warwickshire

The focus play for Week 2 was Merry Wives of Windsor, and the theme was 'Shakespeare and Stratford'. We looked closely at Shakespeare’s upbringing and his childhood in Stratford upon Avon, and how this was reflected in Merry Wives of Windsor. The most popular object was the stunning Map of Warwickshire by Christopher Saxton. Learners were really captivated by the concept that this map was one of a set that provided the first full picture of the different counties of England. Shakespeare lived during a period of great discovery and exploration, and the maps produced during his lifetime allowed people to understand where they were in relation to the rest of the world.

Find out more about Christopher Saxton’s Map of Warwickshire.

Christopher Saxon's Map
Christopher Saxton's Map of Warwickshire, 1576

Week 3: The Money Pot

In Week 3 we focused on A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to support our theme of 'The Birth of Theatre' in which we looked at how professional theatre was established in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the construction of the first play houses and Shakespeare’s acting company. The money pot is a fantastic object in the SBT collections, and was used in playhouse to collect money, and would have been smashed at the end of the performance to remove the money. These money pots would have been used by 'gatherers' who stood at that door and took the box – where the term 'box office' comes from today. Our pot survives because it was never used.

Find out more about the money pot.

Money Pot
SBT 1996-28 An Elizabethan earthenware money pot from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Week 4: Holinshed’s Chronicles

Our theme for Week 4 was 'The World at War', and we used Henry V to look at it in more detail. Although we spent a lot of time looking at military life and conflict during Shakespeare’s times, the object of the week was Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland which Shakespeare used as a source book for Henry V and indeed all of his history plays. The Chronicles is a great big book which draws together all the earlier account of the reign of the kings of England in medieval times into a single volume. We refer to this book throughout the MOOC and it continued to be popular with learners each time it cropped up.

Find out more about Holinshed's Chronicles.

Title page from Rachael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland

Week 5: The Quiney Letter
In Week 5 we looked at The Merchant of Venice and the theme of 'Money and The City'. This was a great week for debate around wealth, and the Object of the Week was the Quiney letter. The Quiney letter is the only surviving letter to or from Shakespeare, and in it Richard Quiney, a close family friend of Shakespeare, is writing to Shakespeare to ask for a loan of 30 pounds. The question on everyone’s lips was how much this 30 pounds would be in today money. It is a difficult question to answer; at the SBT we often use the comparison of a teacher’s annual wage of the day being about 20 pounds. So for Shakespeare to have the liquidity to consider a loan of 30 pounds, he would have had to have been a very wealthy man indeed. Unfortunately this letter survives today because it was never sent to Shakespeare, so we will never know if he ever lent Quiney the money he needed.

Quiney Letter
The only surviving letter written to William Shakespeare, 'The Quiney letter'.

Read Part 2.

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