Seals were used by monarchs, clergymen, aristocracy and merchants throughout Europe in the Elizabethan period to authorise important documents. Family or private seals were also commonly used to finalise and seal letters.
For important documents, security was the main concern. Without a seal, a document was neither complete nor safe from prying eyes. Documents were either tied together with ribbon and sealed, or a strip of paper was cut from the letter and sealed onto the rest of the document. For a document to be official, it had to be sealed.
Seals had distinctive features so that they could not be easily forged. They often had initials, a motto, or a heraldic design. The seal moulds were made from copper, bronze and sometimes lead, stone or slate. The seals could be attached to wooden or metal handles, or to rings and pendants. To use the seal, hot wax was poured onto the document and impressed with the seal.
Shakespeare’s characters often speak of sealing bonds and letters, and are able to recognise from whom a document has been sent by scanning the seal impression. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock refers to the sanctity of his bond or contract which has been made official by a seal. Shylock has lent a large sum to Antonio, a Venetian merchant. The bond (the document they have both signed) says that if Antonio fails to pay back his debt, he must give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. At this point in the play, Antonio is bankrupt and there is a court case, in which Shylock demands the pound of flesh. Antonio’s friend Graziano has just railed (i.e. shouted abuse) at Shylock. This is Shylock’s response:
Till thou canst rail the seal from off my bond,
Thou but offend’st thy lungs to speak so loud:
Repair thy wit, good youth, or it will fall
To cureless ruin. I stand here for law.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)
In the last two lines, Shylock compares Graziano’s wit to a damaged house, saying that it will fall down if he doesn’t repair it: If Graziano doesn’t make an effort to think of more intelligent comments now, he will become more and more stupid as time goes by. By referring to the seal on his bond, Shylock is affirming the irrevocable and official status of seals on documents.
Curiously, Shakespeare employed the image of the familial seal in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hermia is in love with Lysander. Her father wants her to marry Demetrius instead, and complains to Duke Theseus that his daughter is disobedient. According to the law, if Hermia refuses to follow her father’s wishes, he may kill her. Theseus responds by suggesting that Hermia is like a ‘form in wax’ which has been ‘imprinted’ by her father. Here, Shakespeare refers directly to the seal and its impression into warm wax:
What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
( A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1)
composed = made, put together
yea = yes
figure = the image left on wax once you have pressed a seal onto it
disfigure = wipe out, make ugly
Can you think of more uses of seals or images of sealing in Shakespeare’s works?