John Shakespeare and Wool

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John Shakespeare was, on more than one occasion, in trouble with the law because of his illegal dealings in wool. There was an extraordinary amount of legislation in Britain surrounding the sale of wool. This was simply because it was such a valuable commodity. It provided the country with an income because it could be exported abroad and provided employment at home. As a result there were many laws and regulations regarding its sale. John Shakespeare spent a considerable amount of money on wool which he then appears to have sold on to others. Since he did not have the right licence to sell wool, he got into trouble with the law.




Guardian article on the discovery of John Shakespeare’s wool dealings:

Kate Pogue. Shakespeare’s Family. Greenwood Publishing group, 2008.

  1. 18 ‘In 1572 John Shakespeare was brought before the courts twice on charges of illegally dealing in wool. The wool industry was hugely important to England’s prosperity; it gave the country a major export as well as a crucial industry at home, and it was severely regulated. John Shakespeare was not licensed to trade in wool. He was charged and fined for purchasing “a couple of tons” of wool for £210, an
  2. 19 enormous amount of money when one remembers that the two houses he recently bought cost him £40.he scrambled to find money to pay the fines.’


Entry on Finding Shakespeare concerning the ‘wool-broggers’, their shady dealings and their connection to Shakespeare:

‘The Shakespeares were illegal wool brokers, or broggers. Nicholas Rowe, in 1709, in William’s first biography described his father John as “…a considerable dealer in wool” and materials showing him to be a truly national level dealer have been uncovered. Changes in the regulation of the wool brokerage market, combined with an earlier shift from the export of raw wool to the manufacture and export of whole cloth, profoundly changed the family business. To succeed, indeed just to stay in the large trade end of the business, a brogger needed London representation from the mid 1580s.

Francis Langley became an Alnager in 1585. An Alnager, with his ability to certify the quality and length of adulterated cloth, was the most useful of contacts to a brogger. Of course, this is only true if the Alnager was a crook.

If Langley the Alnager was important to Shakespeare, it appears that Shakespeare was equally important to Langley. Otherwise why would Gardiner have his stepson name Shakespeare first in the suit? Shakespeare’s value was twofold: in the theatre and in the wool and cloth trade.’

Stephen Greenblatt. Will In The World. Random House, 2012.

  1. 63 ‘In the wake of the wool shortages in the mid-1570s, the authorities decided that the fault lay with the “broggers”, men like John Shakespeare who had already been twice denounced for illegal transactions …

[He was bound over to keep the peace] “Binding over” – roughly equivalent to a restraining order – was a key low-level policing and crime-prevention method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upon someone’s swearing an oath that he feared for his life or well-being or the well-being of the entire community, the court could issue an order requiring the suspected malefactor to appear in order to guarantee his good behaviour and to post a bond – a surety – to this end. The surviving records do not reveal who swore an oath against John Shakespeare or why. Was it because of his wool brogging …?’



The Tankard

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Tankards epitomise the ‘everyman’ figure of the British drinker, as seen in Falstaff from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with his quarts of ale and disquisitions on drink, whose very name reflects his fondness for alcohol.


John Shakespeare’s appointment as ale-taster hearkened back to a medieval tradition and he was invested with the power to take a brewer to court if the ale was deemed to be of poor quality. He may have taken a formal oath to undertake the duties which would also have included the authority to set the price of the ale locally dependent upon the quality of the product. His task would have been fairly straightforward. He would have been invited to test the ale at a particular tavern and been given a tankard of it to drink, perhaps like the one on display. Despite the popular legend that ale-tasters were required to wear special leather breeches and sit in a puddle of untested beer there is no evidence for this. As part of his duties, John Shakespeare would simply have had to drink a sample of the untested ale rather than sit in it for half an hour to see if it stuck to his trousers.





‘Ale taster’ or ‘Ale conner’

From: The Oxford Companion to Beer. Eds Garrett Oliver & Tom Colicchio. OUP, 2011.

p.28 ‘The ale-conner, also known as the “ale founder” or more grandly as the “Gustator Cervisiae,” was to go from one ale house to the next, tasting the beers and certifying them to be of good enough quality to drink. If the quality of the ale was found wanting, the ale-conner was empowered to drag the offending brewer to the manor court to make restitution. Depending upon the rules of the particular manor, the ale-conner was sometimes also allowed to set the price at which a batch of ale could be sold, or to enforce a manor-wide fixed price for ales …

There is a commonly believed legend that ale-conners once roved the land wearing specially made leather britches. The ale-connor was said to have tested ale by pouring some of the beer on a wooden bench and sitting down in the puddle. A half-hour later he would rise from his seat, and if the beer stuck his britches to the bench, this was a sign that the beer was improperly brewed … there is no solid evidence that beer puddle-sitting was ever actually part of the assaying process’

Ian Spencer Hornsey. A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.

  1. 284 ‘Outside of London, the ale-conner tended to be known as the ale-taster’
  2. 286 ‘Not all civic authorities appeared to demand an oath as a pre-requisite for being an ale-conner [unlike London] … the “Cyte of Worcestre” [only] … demanded … that the prospective ale-conner should be “grave and wise” … [and to be] “sadd and discrete persones”’

Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Shakespeare’s Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary. Bloomsbury, 2016.

  1. 68 ‘His name, Jack Falstaff relates him to a tankard, a vessel as a Jack is “A vessel for liquor, (either for holding liquor, or for drinking from … a (leathern) jug or tankard” (OED)’ [A Jack tankard was named after its construction, namely being formed from leather that had been soaked in hot water and then dried]

Shakespeare’s Will

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William Shakespeare died on the 23 April 1616. He was a man of considerable means and in possession of substantial property. His ‘last will & testament’ was drawn up by the local lawyer Francis Collins, using legal language typical of the period. The will lays out the bequests Shakespeare intended for his friends and immediate relatives.

This will dates from January 1616 with revisions made on 25 March of the same year. New research conducted by The National Archives suggests certain elements may date from 1613, following Shakespeare’s purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse.

Shakespeare signed the will three times, at the bottom of pages one and two and more elaborately on the final page ‘By me William Shakspeare’. In all only six examples of his signature survive.

This transcript of the will reveals how the document evolved over time, drawing attention to additions, omissions and notable beneficiaries.




Will 1

Will 2

Will 3

2015 exhibition

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The 2015 exhibition has been inspired by the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. Click on an image to learn more about the object and Shakespeare’s works.

Atmos Clock




Edward I document. Parchment and Seal fragment.

(c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


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The tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s genius in Stratford-upon-Avon with grand luncheons goes back to the Tercentenary festivities in 1864. In a huge pavilion, guests could attend balls, performances and, of course, lunches. 100 years later, official luncheon parties were still being given in honour of the Bard.

lunch menu.tif

This is the official menu for the 1964 Shakespeare Anniversary Luncheon held in a specially constructed Festival Pavilion on the banks of the river Avon. Originally, Queen Elizabeth II was scheduled to attend the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street that day; however in March 1964 she gave birth to her fourth child, Prince Edward. Her husband His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh participated in the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre in her place. Prince Philip was also the guest of honour at the birthday anniversary luncheon.


The menu served on this day consisted of smoked river trout with horse-radish sauce as starters; cold breasts of roast spring chicken, York ham, points of asparagus, fresh green salad, and hot buttered new potatoes for the main course; and fresh fruit salad or Warwickshire Cream for pudding; coffee was served later.


Compared to the usual sumptuous and lavish Elizabethan feasts, this luncheon appears meagre indeed. However, the social function of official dinners has remained very similar to what it was in Shakespeare’s time. They were an expression of social and political power not only for monarchs and nobles but also for people with social aspirations, like the gentry and wealthy merchants. No wonder that Shakespeare – like most of his contemporaries – makes good use of dinners and banquets in his works: in all of his 38 plays, nine banquet scenes are depicted on stage, a further four are mentioned but not shown.


One banquet you won’t forget is the one that marks the turning point in Macbeth’s development in Act 3 of the play:


[A banquet prepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH,] [p]ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]


You know your own degrees; sit down: at first
And last the hearty welcome.


Thanks to your majesty.


Ourself will mingle with society,
And play the humble host.
Our hostess keeps her state, but in best time
We will require her welcome.
See, they encounter thee with their hearts’ thanks.
Both sides are even: here I’ll sit i’ the midst:
Be large in mirth; anon we’ll drink a measure
The table round.


My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome: to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.


Sweet remembrancer!
Now, good digestion wait on appetite,
And health on both!


May’t please your highness sit.


[The GHOST OF BANQUO enters, and sits in] MACBETH’s place]


Here had we now our country’s honour roof’d,
Were the graced person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance!


His absence, sir,
Lays blame upon his promise. Please’t your highness
To grace us with your royal company.


The table’s full.


Here is a place reserved, sir.




Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?


Which of you have done this?


What, my good lord?


Thou canst not say I did it: never shake
Thy gory locks at me.
(Macbeth, Act 3, scene 4)


This is an example of a banquet gone horribly wrong, but by far the most gruesome of all banquets, however, is the concluding scene in Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. Titus presents his guests, the Roman Emperor Saturninus and his queen Tamora, with a pie made with the meat of Tamora’s own sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Here’s Titus before the dinner, explaining to his victims in all detail what he is going to do with them, the murderers of his son-in-law and the rapists of his daughter Lavinia:


Hark, wretches! how I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.
You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow’d dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on; […]
(Titus Andronicus, Act 5, scene 2)


As these examples show, feasts and banquets prove a welcome setting to stage power and status for Shakespeare. For most of us, however, feasting is nowadays predominantly concerned with good food and good times.


If you want to know more about Tudor feasting, why not check out our blog post on Finding Shakespeare about a spice plate ( or posy trenchers




Or, if you want to try your hand at an Elizabethan recipe for Mince Pies, take a look at our Collections team’s Shakespearian Christmas post (


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This vase was designed and made by John Hutton to commemorate the opening of the Shakespeare Centre in 1964. It is the largest example of blown glass currently known.



The etching depicts the ‘Dance of the Reapers and Nymphs’ from Act 4, Scene 1 of The Tempest. In this comedy, the last play Shakespeare wrote as a sole author, the character Prospero distracts his daughter and her lover Ferdinand from their amorous adventures with an enchanting spectacle or masque. Iris, who in Greek mythology represents the rainbow, calls forth nymphs, or mythical female deities which she calls Naiads who live in the ‘windring [sic] brooks’:


With your sedged crowns and ever-harmless looks,
Leave your crisp channels and on this green land
Answer your summons; Juno does command:
Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love; be not too late. (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)



Iris also calls forth the harvest reapers whom she bids dance with the nymphs, thereby bringing together two worlds: water and land, as well as myth and reality. Iris bids the reapers join the nymphs:



You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow and be merry:
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing. (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)

Shakespeare includes the stage direction ‘Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance’. There are no preserved notes on stage dancing in the period, but it is likely that it resembled the fashions and tastes at the time.

 Dancing in the 16th Century


Dances were inspired by the music that accompanied them, whether at court or in rustic revels. Rhythms or ‘measures’ were very important, helping participants to keep time. Fashionable dances came from Italy, such as the Galliarde, and France, like the Saraband, and were invariably to be found in court. Queen Elizabeth was famed for her love for and skill in dancing at social occasions.


Country or rustic dances originated from festivals such as May day dancing, and were therefore performed in circles or lines. Such dances were accompanied by tabors (snare drums) and pipes. Dancing was a very energetic affair, and people often considered it a form of exercise. Country jigs were extremely popular, and they involved jumping and leaping. Some country dances had amusing names such as the ‘Petticoat Wag’, ‘The Friar and the Nun’ and the ‘Bear Dance’.


In the theatre, both music and dance were extremely important. Actors and musicians would play, sing and dance together during and after performances, constantly entertaining their audiences. Shakespeare includes dancing in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Henry VIII. In these situations, when the characters are dressed in their finery, there is so much dramatic excitement and possibility. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the lovers meet at a grand ball during a dance when Romeo is disguised with a mask. Similarly, Anne Bullen (based on Anne Boleyn) is wooed by King Henry during a dance in which he disguises himself.


Dance was also an exciting way to end a theatrical performance. At the close of As You Like It, Duke Senior asks everyone to take part in ‘rustic revelry’, after which the instruction ‘a dance’ appears. Notice how the Duke plays with the word ‘measure’ to highlight the importance of the rhythms of the dance music:


Meantime, forget this new-fall’n dignity
And fall into our rustic revelry.
Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall. (As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 4)



How many Tudor dances do you know? What about Tudor dance music? Join the discussion and let us know.


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Tibor Reich

The design that you see here was produced by Tibor Reich for the Birthplace Trust in 1964. Reich depicts the kingship, battle and heraldry that resonate throughout Shakespeare’s history plays.



There are ten English history plays published in the First Folio, not counting the anonymous Edward III. Shakespeare wrote about English kings from the incompetent King John all the way through to the majestic Henry VIII. In all of these plays, Shakespeare is fascinated by kingship and the way in which leaders are torn between duty and conscience. In King John, the king has to decide between pleasing the Pope of Rome or claiming his lands in France. In Richard II, the rebel Bolingbroke has to decide whether it is better to live in banishment and injustice or to rise up against his own cousin the king to take the crown. Such decisions are momentous, and Shakespeare allows his audiences to explore the humanity of these great historical figures.




This is an extract from Henry IV, Part II. Henry is plagued by his conscience after having deposed his cousin, Richard II. In this moving and desperate speech, Henry feels envious of his subjects who are able to escape from their troubles through sleep, whilst he suffers with insomnia. His guilt and melancholy lead him to make one of the most quoted observations about kingship in Shakespeare’s plays, ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’:



How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (Henry IV, Part II, Act 3, Scene 1)



Reich’s design emphasises the grand display of monarchy. They have striking crowns, shields and flags, all of which would have been recognisable symbols of particular kings and queens. Shakespeare loved to write about battles in his history plays. He takes a look at the honour and pride felt by kings in fighting for their country.


The following extract is the most quoted, recognisable and even iconic battle cries from Shakespeare’s canon. It comes from Henry V, when Henry and his army are about to siege Harfleur. Henry calls on his men to ‘stiffen the sinews’ and to overcome any anxiety and fear with courage and fortitude. He speaks directly to the noblemen, and then addresses the ordinary men or ‘yeomen’ whom he claims have every right to fight for and be proud of their cause. This speech represents great courage in the face of war, and it shows how a great king can become one with his subjects:


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ (Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1)


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Bishop's Ring
Bishop’s Ring

As expected, rings varied in size and value. The object on display is a fine example of an early 13th century bishop’s ring, made of gold and sapphire. It would have been extremely valuable to mark the Bishop from other clergymen, and would have looked splendid if painted on a hand in a portrait.


Ornamental rings were mostly worn by middle and upper classes, sometimes on all fingers as well as thumbs. Since all jewellery was handmade, each piece was unique, making them easier to identify if one had been stolen or lost. Interestingly, the wedding ring was not considered necessary, although some wealthy people did indeed wear wedding bands. The most obvious kind of ring, especially for men and wealthy women, was the seal ring which was used to impress an image or motto into wax. These rings were especially useful to make servants or messengers appear official.


In Shakespeare’s plays, rings are often given as tokens of love, as in Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline, or most often as a way of identifying an individual. In the comedy, now considered a problem play, All’s Well That Ends Well, the King of France is troubled by the sight of a ring that once belonged to him. He gave the ring as a gift to a young woman called Helena, whom he believes to be dead, and when he sees the ring on the finger of her husband Bertram, he begins to worry that she has been murdered:


Plutus himself,
That knows the tinct and multiplying medicine,
Hath not in nature’s mystery more science
Than I have in this ring: ’twas mine, ’twas Helen’s,
Whoever gave it you. Then, if you know
That you are well acquainted with yourself,
Confess ’twas hers, and by what rough enforcement
You got it from her: she call’d the saints to surety
That she would never put it from her finger,
Unless she gave it to yourself in bed,
Where you have never come, or sent it us
Upon her great disaster.
(All’s Well That Ends Well, 5.3, 2791-802)


Plutus = The god of wealth
Tinct and multiplying medicine = alchemy or the turning of base metal into gold
You have never come = Everyone believes that Bertram and Helena have not consummated their marriage



Shakespeare’s characters also use rings as a way of bargaining. In The Comedy of Errors, a courtesan gives a friend a ring in exchange for a necklace. For various reasons, involving two sets of twins and mistaken identity, the person she believes to be Antipholus of Ephesus is actually Antipholus of Syracuse, and he denies all knowledge of a ring. She decides that she is going to pursue the matter with Antipholus’ wife:



Now, out of doubt Antipholus is mad,
Else would he never so demean himself.
A ring he hath of mine worth forty ducats,
And for the same he promised me a chain:
Both one and other he denies me now.
The reason that I gather he is mad,
Besides this present instance of his rage,
Is a mad tale he told to-day at dinner,
Of his own doors being shut against his entrance.
Belike his wife, acquainted with his fits,
On purpose shut the doors against his way.
My way is now to hie home to his house,
And tell his wife that, being lunatic,
He rush’d into my house and took perforce
My ring away. This course I fittest choose;
For forty ducats is too much to lose.
(The Comedy of Errors, 4.3., 1231-46)

Ducats = European coins made of gold and silver
A chain = Necklace


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A pair of 16th century gloves
A pair of 16th century gloves


Gloves were an expensive luxury in the 16th century. They were often made with kid, sheep or deer leather, and richly decorated. Gloves were worn on the belt rather than hands as they were a symbol of wealth and status: the more ornate the glove on show, the wealthier the owner. Gloves could be jewelled, embroidered, laced and even scented. If scented gloves were too expensive, people could use scented oils or rose water.The style of cuff on the glove could change according to fashion, and glove makers would often unpick the stitching and attach new cuffs onto a pair of gloves, particularly if the leather was expensive.


The exchange of gloves was also common, particularly in deals, as payment, bribes or as a token of love. In The Merchant of Venice, when Portia is disguised as a lawyer she asks for Bassanio’s gloves as a token of thanks for having saved the life of his best friend, Antonio.


On the other hand, if a glove was thrown at or to someone, this was an insult and a challenge for a fight. In the history play Richard II, the Duke of Aumerle throws down his glove at Bagot in order to challenge him to armed combat. Have a look at this passage from the tragedy, now considered a problem play, Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Cressida are two young Trojan lovers, who have just spent their first night together. The following morning they are told that Cressida must leave Troilus to join their enemies, the Greeks, as part of a peace deal. In this passage, the two lovers say farewell to each other, and Troilus asks Cressida to be true to him.


Hear me, my love: be thou but true of heart–

I true? How now! What wicked deem is this?

Nay, we must use expostulation kindly,
For it is parting from us.
I speak not ‘be thou true’ as fearing thee –
For I will throw my glove to Death himself,
That there’s no maculation in thy heart –
But ‘be thou true’ say I, to fashion in
My sequent protestation: ‘Be thou true,
And I will see thee’.
(Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.57-67)



thou = you
deem = thought
expostulation = conversation
thee = you
maculation = stain of unfaithfulness
fashion in = introduce
sequent = following





Shakespeare also uses gloves in a metaphorical sense. Consider this passage from the comedy Twelfth Night. In this passage, Viola (a girl dressed up as a boy to conceal her true identity) talks to Feste, the clown or fool. When Viola encounters him, Feste is playing the tabor (a small drum). He loves to confuse people by playing with language, and below is an example of this:



Save thee, friend, and thy music. Dost thou live by thy tabor?

No sir, I live by the church.

Art thou a churchman?

No such matter, sir. I do live by the church for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

So thou mayst say the king lies by a beggar if a beggar dwell near him, or the church
stands by thy tabor if thy tabor stand by the church.

You have said, sir. To see this age! A sentence is but a chev’rel glove to a good wit,
how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.
(Twelfth Night, 3.1.1-13)


Save thee = May God preserve you (traditional greeting)
Dost thou = do you
Art thou = are you
dwell = live
To see this age! = Look what the world has come to!
chev’rel = kid, a very soft, pliable leather
wit = intelligence


Very few people these days know what a “chev’rel glove” is. What modern object would you choose to make Feste’s statement about language today?


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Medicine was extremely important in this period. Disease and illness were so common that nearly 50% of all children would die before they reached adulthood. Not only was there plague, there were Smallpox and Tuberculosis, as well as general infections and common ailments such as cold and toothache.


Usually, physicians (doctors) would offer diagnoses for illness, while the apothecary (pharmacist) would prepare and sell the remedies for general ailments and wounds, and surgeons would remove limbs and perform operations.


There were no painkillers, other than alcohol or opiates, and treatments for illness were sometimes based on superstition or, more commonly, a good knowledge of herbs.


This is an image of a patient and his physician casting his water. One way in which people could check for illness was water-casting. This was when a physician would check the urine of a patient and make a diagnosis accordingly.

Casting the Water
Casting the Water

Apothecaries would know all about remedies and plants. Here are a few:

Dandelion   –       Used to cure warts, and to help with cramping pains
Nutmeg        –       Used as a laxative/ to induce vomiting for purging
Cinnamon   –       Used to control high blood-sugar levels


This is a picture of an ointment pot. Oils and topical solutions would be kept in jars such as this to keep them safe.

Oil Pot
Oil Pot

There are many references to medicine throughout Shakespeare’s plays. Have a look at this extract from the Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth (at this point King of Scotland) is trying to defend his castle against the English army, but more and more of his Scottish lords are switching sides. As he prepares for battle, he talks to a doctor:


Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
Come, put mine armour on; give me my staff.
(…) Doctor, the thanes fly from me.
Come, sir, dispatch. If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee (…).
What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug,
Would scour these English hence?
(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 3)


physic = medicine
I’ll none of it = I don’t want any of it
staff = lance
thanes = Scottish lords
dispatch = hurry
thou couldst = you could
cast the water = analyse the urine as a method of diagnosis
purge = get rid of
purgative = cleansing
hence = away



Why do you think he compares his country to a diseased body? Given that he’s the king, what metaphor do you think Macbeth would use to describe himself in relation to the country? (A particular body part maybe? Which one?)


Another example of Shakespeare referring to medicine comes from the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo has been to a party, where he has met Juliet, the daughter of his family’s greatest enemy, and fallen in love with her. The next morning he tells his priest, Friar Laurence about the meeting and asks him for help:


I have been feasting with mine enemy,
Where on a sudden one hath wounded me
That’s by me wounded: both our remedies
Within thy help and holy physic lies:
I bear no hatred, blessed man, for lo,
My intercession likewise steads my foe.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)



on a sudden = suddenly
hath = has
thy = your
physic = medicine
lo = an exclamation meaning “Look!” or “Do you see?”
intercession = request
steads = benefits
foe = enemy


Why do you think Shakespeare chooses wounds and medicine as metaphors in this passage? Do you think it’s the best way of describing Romeo’s situation?