Use of rosary beads in Shakespeare

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It is unlikely that Shakespeare would have used a rosary, since he was ostensibly a Church of England worshiper, and Catholicism was technically outlawed in Britain.


Nevertheless, the process of praying with rosaries and reciting prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary is referred to on many occasions in Shakespeare’s works.



In Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors, there are two sets of twins, neither of which knows of the other’s existence. They all end up on one island, which causes much confusion, chaos and amusement. The serving man Dromio of Syracuse is mistaken, unbeknown to him, for his twin Dromio of Ephesus and begins to think the world is inhabited by evil spirits. He calls for his ‘beads’, which signifies rosary:

O, for my beads! I cross me for a sinner.
This is the fairy land: O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls and sprites:
If we obey them not, this will ensue,
They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.
(Comedy of Errors, Act 2, Scene 2)

Bonds and seals in Shakespeare

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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

Wax seals

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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.

The Guild of the Holy Cross Town Mace
The Guild of the Holy Cross Town Mace

For important documents, security was the main concern. Without a seal, a document was neither official 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.

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.

Time and Clocks in Shakespeare

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Apart from time in the more straight-forward sense of the time the story of the play covers, there are numerous references to clocks and watches in Shakespeare. However, most of them are purely functional, as the passing of time also propels the plot, and certain characters quite literally need to keep an eye on the watch. Yet, some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves musing about how to keep time in the absence of time pieces altogether.

Such time-less spaces, where there are no tower clocks or church bells to tell you how late in the day it is, are quite often places on the margin of society or even entirely outside of it. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, for example, is such a place. In the tradition of a pastoral setting, an idyllic place where the usual constraints of society do not apply, time becomes a very hazy concept. We don’t really know, for example, for how long Rosalind and Celia stay in the woods before the end of the play. However, for the two lovers Orlando and Rosalind (who is disguised as a boy and has decided to test Orlando’s love by trying to ‘cure’ him of his love sickness), spending as much as one hour apart from each other is torment. In their first encounter in the woods Rosalind kicks off her conversation with one of the most common of all chat-up lines:

I pray you, what is’t o’clock?

You should ask me what time o’ day: there’s no clock in the forest.

Then there is no true lover in the forest; else sighing every minute and groaning every hour would
detect the lazy foot of Time as well as a clock.
(As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2).


She discovers that the usual way of striking up a conversation doesn’t work in the woods, so Rosalind – quite ingeniously – changes the topic to the Renaissance stereotype of the pining lover who perpetually sighs for his absent beloved, which might in her view be used to measure the passing of time.

A more serious reference to clocks comes from the history play Richard II. In this scene, the recently deposed king laments the hours spent in solitary confinement under the orders of his cousin and usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
For now hath time made me his numbering clock,
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours […]
(Richard II, Act 5 Scene 5).


Here, Richard makes an analogy between a clock’s face, with its numbers and dials, and his own body. Time, he complains, wastes him and turns his body into a perpetual and inescapable reminder of how far he has fallen from his exalted throne. As well as his body acting like a clock, Richard is able to tell the passing of time with his own sighs and groans which, to all intents and purposes, continue in 24 hours like clockwork.


Although clocks are talked of throughout Shakespeare’s work, they are invariably liked to time or ‘Time’, which he often personifies. This ‘Time’ is something to be feared and a thing from which nobody is able to escape unless the playwright allows his characters the luxury of living in magical forests or islands.


Unlike Richard who wastes away in his cell, Shakespeare seems to suggest that the only way to deal with the passing of time is to laugh it away. When the melancholy Jaques quotes the merry fool Touchstone, who moralises on time, he finds it hilarious rather than sad:


‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot.
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer.
(As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7).



Or, to put it more like the Fool, Feste, in Twelfth Night:



What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure
(Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 3).




If you enjoyed this post, why not take a look at our blog entry on a pocket dial:

To find out more about Shakespearian lovers, take a look at this article on wooing:

Atmos Clocks

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Atmos clocks keep going for such a long time because they use differences in atmospheric pressure and temperature as their power source. They have a capsule containing a mixture of gaseous and liquid ethyl chloride inside, and the gas expands as the temperature rises and compresses a spiral spring while doing so. If it gets colder again, the gas condenses and the spring slackens. This motion constantly winds the clock. For example, a temperature variation of only one degree Celsius is enough to power the clock for two days.


Dutch inventor, Cornelis Drebbel

This sounds like a rather futuristic way of making your clock tick, but in fact the first mechanism to employ this technique was created during Shakespeare’s lifetime. A Dutch inventor with the name of Cornelis Drebbel constructed a perpetuum mobile for James I, which was first demonstrated in 1604 and then on display for visitors at Eltham Palace. You can see a picture of it below, which is only a detail from a much larger painting now housed in a museum in Baltimore. By all accounts, Drebbel’s instrument combined two features: first, a self-winding astronomical almanac showing the date and the phases of the moon, and second, a cylindrical ring in which water moved endlessly to and fro. Of course, this mechanism is not really a perpetuum mobile, a machine that never stops, but it would have been considered almost magic in its self-sufficiency.


Cornelis Drebbel’s Perpetuum Mobile, detail from Hieronymus Francken the Younger, The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.


This so-called Eltham Perpetuum was a widely talked about object in Jacobean England; Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Jonson mentions it twice in his works. Although Shakespeare does not include this invention, he is thought to have used Drebbel as one of the models for his own magus figure, Prospero, the learned scholar, inventor and magician, who rules the desert island in The Tempest with the help of the magic he has acquired through years of devoted study.


If you want to know more about Drebbel and his inventions, including his air conditioning of Westminster Abbey and the first working submarine from 1621, here’s an article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/shachtman-zero.html

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seal of the holy cross

  • Found on important documents signed by The Guild of the Holy Cross (a church organisation in Stratford in the 15th century)
  • They built a new guild hall, a school and almshouses for the poor and infirm
  • Their properties were confiscated during Henry VIII’s reformation but granted to the newly chartered (and Protestant) Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1553.

Click the links below to discover more:

Wax seals

Bonds and seals in Shakespeare

2015 Shakespeare and Agincourt Exhibition

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Click on the object image to find out more!





Atmos Clock





seal of the holy cross







Henry V














Pike head






Watercolour of Robert Stephens as Falstaff

robert stephens as falstaff




Don’t forget to check out this quiz

Nap time

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Beds were, in fact, extremely expensive. Only very wealthy families owned beds and, even then, rarely slept in them. Beds were such a luxury that they were placed on display in the parlour so that guests would be able to recognise the wealth and taste of their hosts.





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Urine was used to turn animal skin into leather (a process known as tanning). The urine was taken from local people and it is possible that young William helped his father to collect the waste while he was learning the trade. The phrase ‘piss poor’ originates from this kind of trade where impoverished families had nothing to sell but their own urine.





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Lady Macduff and Children

Young children were sent to petty school where they would learn to read and write.