2012 Exhibition


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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?