In 1596, one William Waite was allegedly set upon by four thugs on the south bank of the Thames, an area notorious for its boozing, brawling and whoring. The case was eventually settled out of court. We know for certain the identity of one of the four. His name was William Shakespeare.
This was one of the revelations that made the first week of the 20-part Shakespeare's Restless World so tremendously impressive. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, more or less invented a new genre of historical investigation in 2010 with his consistently enlightening A History of the World In 100 Objects. Now he's doing his bit for the BBC's celebration of all things British in the run-up to the Olympics with a more narrowly focused variation on the theme.
Though the template is the same – the Waite story emerged on Friday, while MacGregor was examining a rapier found by the Thames – there's a slightly lighter, almost skittish feel to it. So when the fatal fight between Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet comes up, he describes the play as "not so much Love Story as A Clockwork Orange". I'm looking forward to the other 15 installments.
There's another burgeoning radio genre, what might be termed mp3 history: after Jane Austen's iPod and The Brontës' Piano, the pre-Olympic Bardfest continued yesterday with Shakespeare's Playlist, looking at music the playwright probably heard.
It was as fascinating in its own way as MacGregor's efforts, but what was most remarkable to these ears was how contemporary the music sounded: there were plenty of hey-nonny-nos and fa-la-las, but in dark, twisting melodies with some almost bluesy intervals and surprising key changes.
We also learnt that Shakespeare usually concluded his plays, even the tragedies, with a "jig" – not a dance but a short farce, usually so bawdy that old men in the audience would be so inflamed with lust (even though the women's parts were played by men) that they'd have to take themselves off to the brothels of Southwark to round the night off. As London's tourist trade accelerates with the approach of the Olympics, this is maybe the kind of package deal our ticket agencies should be thinking of.
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