Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors)

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Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors)

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A superlative study of fifty items from Shakespearean times; whatever the strength of the connection between he and they, the power of this brief read is admirable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 136 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare
ISBN: 9781474222266

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You remember that thing the British Museum did a few years back, where they picked the best of the best they owned – 100 objects that most epitomised both the riches of the place and the cultures it was designed to represent? Well, it seems that idea has legs. It’s been repeated, even, for the purpose of illuminating just one man – and you can probably guess that man was Mr Shakespeare. There has indeed been a project to pick a hundred limelights to illuminate his texts and his times, although for the purpose of this book they have been whittled down to fifty – and arranged by theme according to Jaques' 'Seven Ages of Man' speech from As You Like It. And the chances are, seeing as the results are almost more powerful here than in the best museum, you will like it very much indeed.

Take the paintings and hangings. In a museum you would get up close and see every brush-stroke, or feel the pick of every touch of tapestry-maker's art, but the book here does something different. It's all about context, so even when each object has at most three or four paragraphs about it, you get the strongest sense of why the artwork was done the way it was done, as well as who might have bought it and where and why it would have been hung.

That applies to the furniture too – by starting with birth and a look at the world we are entering with Shakespeare's arrival, we get badges of office and even civic office furniture that his father could well have used, or seen at church. Childhood is toys and family portraits, the third stage is blingy bags and gloves (perhaps made or sold by the playwright's glover father), before we enter professionalism and married domesticity (which have to be the other way round to usual, as WS did the family-building before the career). Everywhere the book shows a uniform, strict pattern – one completely unadorned, archival foley picture of whatever is being looked at, whether it be something completely, fixedly attributed to Shakespeare's possession or not, an accompanying page of text, and the academic derivation and measurements, etc, and that's it. But the dryness that description implies is never on the page.

What thunders off the page to match the opening of The Tempest is context. The large cushion cover, complete with bedroom-bound, 'hands-off', 'you shall NOT commit adultery whatever that printing error in that Bible says' illustration, signs of times that were changing from RC to Protestant, right down to a posset cup – all these artefacts, and the relevant quotes from the plays and poetry that hardly ever seem shoehorned into this text, come perfectly to life – as I don't think they would quite so easily behind glass, even with the 'real life' factor. And of course, as was the intent, so does Shakespeare come perfectly to life. This is a brilliant 'deathday' present for his spirit, embodied in what he could have played with, what his father officiated with, what he saw on the bookshelves both before and after he set his quill to parchment. It seems that new research is behind some of this understanding – which would still seem necessary, as in my proof Elizabeth I is deemed to be pictured underneath the eight planets, which is plain daft as that wasn't the tally at the time. But I can't nitpick – for a book of this quality I wish it most well indeed.

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal could be a vital fillup for people not au fait enough with the man and his works in this anniversary year.

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Buy Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors) at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Delia Garratt and Tara Hamling (editors) at Amazon.com.

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