20/03/2012 14:34 GMT

Radio 4's Shakespeare's Restless World Explores Lives Of Original Audience

A dagger, an eye relic and a fork are among the subjects of a new BBC series which will examine the turbulent lives of the Bard's original audience.

Radio 4's Shakespeare's Restless World follows on from the success of A History Of The World In 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010.

In the new programme, British Museum director Neil MacGregor will look at Shakespeare's audience through 20 objects from the period, the 1590s and early 1600s.

Highlights will include a dagger and rapier, which the programme will use to show how the literary legend's audience faced a huge problem with knife crime.

The objects are the type that a man "would have taken out for a night out in Southwark", MacGregor said at the launch of the programme.

"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," he said.

"Knife crime, fighting in the streets, was a major threat to order. Laws were passed to stop the rapier being larger than a certain length but they did not work. Romeo and Juliet is about a very contemporary problem."

The dagger and rapier, from the Royal Armouries in Leeds, were discovered on the banks of the Thames and might possibly have been dropped by their owner on a drunken night out.

"When Shakespeare's audience came out on to the streets they were quite likely to have seen people fighting with them," MacGregor said.

Other objects will include the eye relic of a Catholic martyr, which will be used to look at the violence and fear experienced by Catholics during the period.

It is thought that the eye was retrieved from a Catholic priest who had been hanged and publicly disembowelled.

MacGregor said: "This object, more than any text, takes you straight into the world of what would have been in your head as you stand in the theatre."

A fork, excavated at the Rose Theatre on the South Bank, will shed light, in the 20-part series, on what it was like to visit a Shakespearean theatre.

The pit audience ate oysters and whelks while those in the gallery were treated to candied fruits and ate with what was then something of a novelty, a fork.

MacGregor said: "This series gives us a chance to understand what life was like in the turbulent world of William Shakespeare.

"Using 20 objects from the period - some grand, some everyday things - we can explore what the world looked like to the groundlings in the Globe and try to understand Shakespeare's restless world."

The series also features Royal Shakespeare Company chief associate director Greg Doran and National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner.

The objects come from The National Museum of Wales, the National Museum of Scotland, The Royal Armouries at Leeds, Edinburgh University Library, Westminster Abbey, the British Library and Stonyhurst College.

The programmes will be made permanently available to listen to online and to download and the objects can be viewed in deep zoom.

BBC director general Mark Thompson, who is stepping down in the autumn, went to Stonyhurst College, whose eye relic is featured in the programme.

He joked at the launch that "prominent broadcasting careers" were the equivalent of a "public hanging".

Shakespeare's Restless World is broadcast from April 16 on Radio 4.