Is this a dagger which I see before me? Historian to explore Shakespearean violence

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The Independent Culture

Rising knife crime in London, youth gangs out of control, and helpless lawmakers attempting to curb the fighting by banning certain types of blade. It may sound familiar, but this was the London of William Shakespeare's day, and gives an insight into one of his most enduring love stories.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is to follow up his hugely popular Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects with one that focuses on the chaotic society of the capital in the late 16th century – including its violence.

Among the objects Mr MacGregor will discuss in Shakespeare's Restless World, starting next month, are a rapier and a dagger found recently on the banks of the Thames. They are objects that young men would have carried with them in Southwark, where fights happened regularly.

Mr MacGregor said there was no indication of how the two weapons, now at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, came to be there. He speculated they could have been dropped on a drunken night out or thrown into the river to avoid incriminating the owner.

It was a society that provided the backdrop to Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed lovers. "People think of Romeo and Juliet as a love story, but it is just as much a play about knife crime in the upper classes," Mr MacGregor said.

The play was about a "very contemporary problem" that drove panicked authorities to introduce laws preventing men carrying daggers over a certain length. Yet that did little to curtail the problem. The first reference to young men as "blades" also occurs in the play. Shakespeare's Restless World "will look at the world through the eyes of Shakespeare's audience by exploring objects from that turbulent period" the British Museum said.

It will examine issues from witchcraft and warfare to food, trading and religion. Other objects include a human eyeball in a silver case, plucked from a Catholic martyr after he had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Brutality was "part of your daily walk through London," Mr MacGregor said.

The object would take those who saw it "straight into the theatre of cruelty," he added. "The last thing that eye saw, was the hangman coming to disembowel him, with a huge crowd behind."

Other objects include a medal celebrating Francis Drake circumnavigation of the world, a fork excavated at the Rose Theatre on London's South Bank, and a musical clock.