words, words, words

posted on 30 Aug 2012 12:47 by Elena Pinto Simon
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“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…”
Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

These words are almost overwhelming every time I read them or hear them performed. It is a stunning text, from a magical play — a picture drawn from words: rich, visual, evocative, cinematic, and almost intoxicating. Shakespeare is showing off, painting with words, and some four hundred years after they were written, they still make me want to go in search of that secret place.


It was a big summer in London. It’s not that our cousins across the pond have a so much better story to tell. It’s that they are such masters at telling – and re-telling, their stories. They use their histories so much better than we do. Included in the summer‘s bounty for London was THE Bard – ending with the spectacular exhibition on Staging Shakespeare now up at the British Museum (and more about this in another post). I’m going through the exhibition catalogue now; it’s dazzling.

The summer started early, however, when the BBC radio ran, over four weeks in the late spring, around Shakespeare’s birthday, Neil MacGregor’s newest object-study lesson: Shakespeare’s Restless World. In this mini-series, tiny in comparison to his now canonical History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor takes one object a day from the Museum’s trove of holdings of things from Shakespeare’s time. And using the method he has now honed into an art form in itself, he spends 14 minutes on each,talking about what it would have meant in that time and place. What kind of objects? Well, it includes, a fork, found in the excavation of the Rose Theatre, an apprentice’s cap, a communion chalice from Stratford, a public notice to close the theatres because of an outbreak of plague, a ‘magical’ mirror. Only a portion of the 20 objects would have had enormous value in Shakespeare’s day. Many were ephemera, and it was a miracle they survived at all.

But what a picture MacGregor paints with them all!

You can listen to the podcasts here:

But fair warning: this series is highly addictive, and you are likely to be hooked after one podcast. And like Oberon’s intoxicating lines, you may find yourself wanting to spend some time in the late 16th century, hunting for the secret place.