What did Elizabethan theatergoers eat while watching Hamlet?
British Museum Director MacGregor (A History of the World in 100 Objects, 2011, etc.) answers that question and many others as he examines 20 objects, now in museums and libraries, that illuminate daily life in Shakespearean England. As for theater snacks, researchers combing through debris buried under the Globe discovered that nuts, dried fruit and various kinds of shellfish were popular. Oysters were cheap, sold by girls known as “oyster-wenches” and pried from their shells with daggers, which every man carried. A two-pronged iron fork, though, was a surprising discovery; MacGregor speculates that it belonged to a wealthy audience member who imported the dining utensil from Italy at a time when most English ate with their fingers. A felted woolen cap gives the author a chance to explain how clothing choices distinguished among workers and signaled class. An obsidian mirror belonging to John Dee, practitioner of the occult arts, inspires a chapter on “the proximity and the influence of a world of spirits” that viewers of The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream took for granted. Dee, it turns out, was a trusted adviser of Queen Elizabeth. A model of a bewitched ship, from the collections of the National Museum of Scotland, proves that for many in Shakespeare’s audience, “witchcraft was part of the fabric of daily life.” Viewers likely were aware, too, of the difference between the mischief perpetrated by English witches and the “taste for high politics” enjoyed by Scottish witches—the three, for example, whose chanting opens Macbeth. Civic life was indeed tense throughout Elizabeth’s reign and even after her death. The country was roiled by threats of treason and assassination, beset by religious conflict and repeatedly infected by plague.
Beautifully illustrated, MacGregor’s history offers a vibrant portrait of Shakespeare’s dramatic, perilous and exhilarating world.