This series of posts was established in December 2010 to reflect new research by staff and doctoral students in the History Department and Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham and to highlight the nationally significant collection of objects from the early modern period held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The concept was a direct response to the popular BBC Radio 4 series of programmes, in association with the British Museum, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, which elucidated the central significance of crafted objects as evidence of the concerns, beliefs and habits of past cultures.
Earlier this year, a further Radio 4 series, ‘Shakespeare's Restless World’ continued this approach with a 20-part series, which “looks at the world through the eyes of Shakespeare's audience by exploring objects from that turbulent period.” This series, once again, uses objects as a microcosm through which the broad themes of history can be represented and explored, this time with the focus on the period during which Shakespeare rose to prominence as a playwright. It situates the experience of Londoners visiting the playhouse (and snacking there) within a restless world of dynastic, religious and social change. The programmes examine a range of objects to evoke, for example, the waning of the Tudor age, the glories or bloodshed of past and present warfare, the tumult of religious reform and horrors of persecution, threats from political intrigue and plots, the expanding horizons, opportunities and luxuries created by trade and discovery, and the influence of belief in magic on affairs of state. It is a compelling version of the story of the age.
One notable omission in this rich and engaging history of Shakespeare’s world as told through objects, however, is any reference to the domestic context for daily life. And yet, some of the most exciting historical research in recent years has identified the domestic environment as one of the major sites of social and cultural experience in the period, so that the rich and complex range of interactions between people and material things that took place at home was frequently evoked on the stage.
The 20 objects selected for the Radio 4 programmes are, in the main, highly exceptional objects in terms of the quality of craftsmanship and cost, not to mention histories of ownership, and so they represent the political, religious and intellectual concerns of the social elite. Our blogs by comparison consider the more ordinary, everyday concerns and practices of the majority of people—dressing, eating, tending children, sleeping, courting, showing off—and we examine how the crafted objects that facilitated these needs and desires shaped experience and influenced thought. Our series of blogs therefore offers an important complement to the Radio 4/British Museum history of Shakespeare’s world.
Whereas the radio series has examined the turbulence and horrors of religious division at the national level our blogs have addressed the material evidence of popular beliefs and superstitions, such as concealing shoes in buildings or burying ‘Bartmann’ jugs filled with nail clippings, hair and urine under hearths as protection against witchcraft (posts 34 and 18). Other posts elucidate fears about women’s power in the household and how humble domestic items such as cauldrons and stools were associated with witches (19, 20, 25). We have also discovered how more orthodox Christian belief and morality was expressed and supported in daily life through lively biblical stories depicted on bed cushions, hangings or stoneware jugs (12, 15, 5).
We have learnt about the religious and social significance of the family meal (post 36) and the objects that facilitated and shaped that activity (5, 14, 42) but also the special, luxury items associated with fine wine and sweet treats (27, 30). Other posts have revealed the relationship between daily routine and rites of passage in the lifecycle, such as a thimble given as a courtship token or the use of linen sheets as burial shrouds (21, 49). A series of posts point towards the timeless paraphernalia of childhood; a cradle, highchair, rattle, doll and even a remarkably modern-looking baby walker (posts 24, 41, 33, 45, 28). The medicinal objects featured in posts 22, 31 and 32 must have offered hope through terrifying periods of sickness.
Our featured objects are not simply the materials of daily life; they served as an important means through which to express personal and social identity. Several posts, for example, consider the rich symbolic language of items of clothing such as gloves (40) and ruffs (47) in communicating wealth, piety, status, fashionability or, in the case of embroidery, the skill and virtue of the female maker (48). This form of visual and material communication was natural and immediate to Shakespeare and his audience so that allusions to this language of materiality are intrinsic to the operation of his works. From Othello's value-laden handkerchief with its decoration of strawberries (see posts 29 and 48) to the rapiers discussed in post 39 that signified ‘civilised’ gentry status but were too often utilised for violence, the power of such objects to mediate or disrupt social relationships was exploited as plot device in numerous plays.
Objects relating to domestic or everyday life may not represent the most ‘restless’ aspect of the world that Shakespeare and his contemporaries inhabited but they are an essential part of the story of this period in history. The household was the central and fundamental unit of Shakespeare’s world and the space where wider political, religious and social concerns played out to impact on the lived experience of ordinary people. The second half of our series of blogs will continue to tell this neglected aspect of the history of the period by revealing the meanings, functions and symbolism of another 50 ‘everyday’ objects from Shakespeare's world.