Here are some frequently asked questions about William Shakespeare. Browse though them to find out what we know about Shakespeare and his life in Tudor England.
When was Shakespeare born?
Shakespeare was baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 26 April 1564. At that time, the Prayer Book instructed parents not to delay the baptism of their child beyond the Sunday following birth. In 1564, 26 April fell on a Wednesday, making it unlikely that Shakespeare was born before the previous Sunday, 23 April. When he died, on 23 April 1616, Shakespeare was said to have been in his fifty-third year (i.e. he was fifty-two), which would have been impossible if he was born on or after 24 April. Given that three days would be a reasonable interval between birth and baptism, 23 April has therefore come to be celebrated as his birthday. Shakespeare did not have a middle name. The baptismal record reads "Gulielmus, filius Johannes Shakspere". All the entries are in Latin, and what this means in English is "William, son of John Shakspere". Shakespeare's family name, like many names of the period, is spelled in several different ways, and Shakspere is the way it appears in most Stratford records. There is great variation in the spelling of Shakespeare’s signatures; however this was not unusual in Shakespeare's time. The six surviving examples of Shakespeare's signature are from legal documents on which there is little room for a full signature. The variations are: Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere, and William Shakspeare.
What do we know about Shakespeare’s parents and siblings?
William Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare and his mother was Mary (neé) Arden. They married in about 1557. William was the oldest of his siblings. William's brothers were Gilbert (born in 1566), Richard (born in 1574) and Edmund (born in 1580). He also had two sisters, Joan (born in 1569) and Ann (born in 1571). Ann died at the age of eight. Shakespeare's father, like many men of his time, was involved in a number of businesses. John Shakespeare was a successful Stratford businessman, in the glove-making and wool-dealing trades. Some documents refer to him as glove maker, but he is also described as a whittawer (a man who prepared a particular kind of leather) and a yeoman. He had settled in Stratford by 1552 and later bought property in the town. He held various civic offices, culminating in a year as High Bailiff (mayor) in 1567. However, from 1576 there is increasing evidence of financial embarrassment. He stopped attending Council meetings, mortgaged property to raise money and was said, by 1591, to have stopped attending church for fear of being arrested by creditors if he left his house. His son, William Shakespeare, following his success in the theatre, more than restored the family fortunes. From 1597 to 1605 he purchased four properties in Stratford (including New Place, the second largest house in the town), laying out as much as £900. In those days a house could change hands for £25, clear evidence of Shakespeare's wealth. Other indications of wealth include the acquisition of a family coat of arms in 1596, and the adoption of the coveted title of 'gentleman' in his title deeds. A tax assessment of 1592/3 lists only three 'gentlemen' in Stratford.
What did Shakespeare's coat of arms look like?
A coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare, William's father, in 1596. There is no record of it being used in the life-time of either, but it does appear on William's monument in the church, erected by 1623. The document by which the grant was made includes a rough drawing and the following technical description: 'Gold, on a bend [diagonal bar] sable [black], a spear of the first [i.e. gold], steeled argent [with a silver tip]; and for his crest... a falcon his wings displayed argent [silver], standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear gold, steeled as aforesaid, [i.e. silver] set upon a helmet with mantles and tassles'. Following this description, the coat of arms can easilly be pictured.
Who was Shakespeare married to?
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway towards the end of 1582, at the age of 18. Anne's exact date of birth is not known, but it is thought to have been approximately 1555, which means she would have been 27 when they married. Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare lived within the parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, but did not marry in the parish church. Anne was three months pregnant at the time of the marriage, so to avoid the publicity of banns the couple obtained a licence from the Bishop. This licence also authorised the marriage to take place outside the parish of normal residence. Stratford then lay in the diocese of Worcester, and two documents survive in the diocesan archives to establish the marriage was performed in November 1582. Unfortunately, neither name the parish where the marriage was licensed to take place, nor has a record of it been discovered in any surviving parish register. The marriage could, therefore, have taken place in any church within Worcester diocese where no registers survive today to prove the contrary. Not surprisingly, many have been suggested: Luddington and Bishopton (both within Stratford parish), and Billesley where Shakespeare's grand daughter was later married. Another strong contender is Temple Grafton, a parish otherwise inexplicably mentioned in one of the surviving Worcester documents. Find out more at Anne Hathaway's.
Why did Shakespeare leave his wife his 'second best bed'?
William Shakespeare signed his will on 25 March 1616. To Anne Shakespeare (nee Hathaway), his wife of 34 years and mother of his children, he left the following, inserted near the end of the document: Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed wth the furniture (furniture is used to refer to the curtains and bedcover which formed part of the complete bed). Under medieval common law in England a widow was entitled to one third of her late husband's estate for her life (or widowhood) even though it was not specifically mentioned in the will. In practice however, most wives were mentioned, usually in terms of affection and trust, and were frequently made executrix of the will. Unusually, in Shakespeare's will we find no affectionate reference. The bequest of the second best bed is not in itself unusual, nor probably a snub as has been suggested. The best bed, or indeed best of any type of item was usually regarded as an heirloom to be passed to the heir. It is quite possible that the best bed had been reserved for guests and that the second best was, in fact, the bed that William and Anne shared. Why this is the only specified bequest to her has never been resolved.
Was Shakespeare gay?
Shakespeare had a wife and family. He wrote a lot of plays celebrating heterosexual love. Some of his Sonnets - which may or may not be autobiographical - are addressed to a woman - the so-called 'dark lady' with whom the writer clearly imagines an adulterous sexual relationship. The idea that he may have had a similar relationship with a young man comes from the other Sonnets, which express intense and idealized affection for a 'lovely boy'. Though there is nothing explicitly sexual about this relationship a number of critics, especially but not only in recent years, have argued that it is sexual nevertheless. So there is no simple answer to the question.
What do we know about Shakespeare’s children and his descendents?
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had three children - Susanna baptised on 26 May 1583, and twins, Judith and Hamnet, baptised on 2 February 1585. Hamnet died at the age of 11 and was buried in Stratford on 11 August 1596. The cause of death is unknown. Susanna married John Hall in 1607, and had one child, Elizabeth, born in 1608. Elizabeth was married twice, to Thomas Nash in 1626, and to John Bernard in 1649. However, she had no children by either husband. In 1616 Judith married Thomas Quiney, by whom she had three sons, Shakespeare Quiney, who died in infancy, and Richard and Thomas, who both died unmarried, early in 1639 within a month of each other. Legitimate descent from Shakespeare is therefore impossible. It is possible, however, to claim a relationship through his sister, Joan. She married William Hart some time before 1600 and there are many descendants of this marriage alive today, in both male and female lines.
Was Shakespeare really the author of the plays attributed to him?
Shakespeare’s authorship of the works commonly attributed to him is amply attested to by documentary evidence from his own time and beyond. His name first appears in print on the titlepages of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594).
As was customary, his earliest plays were published without ascription to their author, but his name appears on titlepages of many plays from 1598 onwards and of the Sonnets in 1609. Many writers refer to him by name as the author of plays and poems during his lifetime and later, most significantly in the private conversations of around Christmas 1618 between Ben Jonson and William Drummond of Hawthornden. There are many manuscript allusions. The First Folio of 1623 prints tributes including Jonson’s ‘To the Memory of my Beloved the Author Mr William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us’, in which Shakespeare is described as the ‘sweet swan of Avon.’ The inscriptions on the memorial in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon compare him to great figures of antiquity and praise ‘what he hath writ.’
No questions were raised until the late eighteenth century, when James Wilmot, a literary scholar and clergyman, came up with the idea that the true author of the works was Francis Bacon. The idea re-surfaced in 1848 in a book by an American lawyer, Colonel Joseph C. Hart, called The Romance of Yachting and gathered force with the work of Delia Bacon, a mad American lady who in 1856 sought to open the Stratford grave in the hope of finding evidence to support her case that the plays were the work of a committee including Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Walter Ralegh. This resulted in the forming of both an American and an English Bacon Society, which still exist. It grew in force in the following years, since when at least 60 candidates, from including Queen Elizabeth I downwards, have been proposed. In recent times the most popular have been Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford. The list grows year by year.
The most common anti-Stratfordian arguments are that Shakespeare was of relatively humble origins, is not known to have travelled overseas and came from a small provincial town, where he could not have received a good enough education to have written the plays. The facts are that it is not necessary to be an aristocrat to be a great writer - Jonson, who like Shakespeare did not attend a university, was the son of a bricklayer, Marlowe’s father was a cobbler - that the plays show no knowledge of foreign countries that could not have been obtained from books or from conversation, and that Stratford had a good grammar school whose pupils received a rigorous education in the classics which would more than account for the learning displayed in the works. You can find out more about this issue by reading these blogs there is even a recorded webinar you can see to find out more.
Are there any artefacts that belonged to Shakespeare and his family?
There are no personal items for which we have clear documentary proof to substantiate definite ownership by Shakespeare or his family. There were many extravagant claims made for certain objects during the 18th and 19th centuries. Numerous chairs were pronounced as being 'Shakespeare's Chair', although often they were too late in date for such a link to have been correct. In 1793 a collection of Shakespeare 'relics', including a card and dice box, a sword, an iron deed box, a lock and a firegrate, was passed from Thomas Hart (a descendant of Shakespeare's sister Joan Hart) to the tenants/custodians of Shakespeare's Birthplace, Mr and Mrs Hornby. When the rent increased for the house in 1820, widow Hornby left the house and took the 'relics' with her, later passing them to her grandson. In 1896 some of these artifacts were auctioned and the collection dispersed. The firegrate and the iron lock, bought from this sale, are currently on loan to the Trust from Charterhouse School. In the early 19th century a gold seal-ring, bearing the initials 'W.S.', was found in the church yard of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. This ring is now in the Trust's collection and it is tempting to speculate that it may have belonged to Shakespeare, but such an attribution cannot be proved. The ring is certainly of the type that was worn by an Elizabethan gentleman and curiously, Shakespeare’s will bears no seal, although it originally concluded with 'I witness whereof I have herunto set my hand and seal', but the 'and seal' was subsequently crossed out. The letters 'W' and 'S' are joined.
How was Shakespeare educated?
Not all children went to school in the sixteenth century because there was no compulsory system of education. Infants could attend a petty school (from the French 'petits' meaning 'little ones') to learn their alphabet and basic reading. At seven, children could be apprenticed to a tradesman, craftsman or household, or sent to a grammar school. Children from wealthy families were often instructed by tutors at home. Discipline was strict at this time. The master usually carried a bundle of birch twigs, which he used for beating the boys on their backsides. The amount of beating varied from school to school. Some masters only beat their boys for serious offences; but one master was said to beat his boys on cold mornings 'for no other purpose than to get himself warm'. Boys could be beaten for many offences, including fighting, stealing, swearing, telling lies, coming to school late and talking in class. There is no record of Shakespeare going to University. Only a few playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare attended University, for example Christopher Marlowe who was at Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who prided himself on his learning, did not.
Was Shakespeare right or left handed?
Shakespeare's handwriting has been carefully studied by palaeographers and there is no suggestion in these studies that he was not naturally right-handed. The bust of Shakespeare put up by his family in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church after his death shows him holding a quill pen in his right hand so we can assume that he was, like most people, right-handed.
What does the term 'the lost years' mean in relation to Shakespeare's life and what is known about them?
This refers to the period of Shakespeare's life after leaving school and before his marriage. It is not known for sure how he spent this part of his life, although there has been much speculation. John Aubrey wrote in 1681 that William Shakespeare 'had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country'. John Cottom who taught at Stratford school had his family home in Lancashire and some think that this master may have found him employment as a tutor for the family of a local landowner Alexander Houghton. Houghton mentioned a 'William Shakeshafte' in his will. What did Shakespeare do between leaving Stratford and working in London? One of the puzzles of Shakespeare's life is 'the lost years' - the period between 1585, when Shakespeare's twins were baptised in Stratford, and 1592, when he surfaces as an established playwright in London. The most famous legend is that he poached deer from nearby Charlecote Park and ran away to London to avoid punishment. The deer-poaching story, in which the young Shakespeare features as one of several Stratford youths engaged in the fairly regular stealing of deer from Sir Thomas Lucy's park at nearby Charlecote. Having been caught and prosecuted rather harshly by Sir Thomas, he is said to have revenged himself by composing a satirical ballad, which got him into such trouble that he was forced to flee to London. There is no contemporary evidence to substantiate this story, however, this tale was known, from a written record by Richard Davies (1708), to have been circulating at the end of the 17th century, drawing on an oral tradition which must have gone back much further. There is also, in the opening scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor, an exchange between Shallow, Slender and Evans which can be interpreted as a disparaging reference to the Lucy family. Clearly though it would be unwise to accept the story in its fully-blown form, the tale may have had some basis in fact. Other suggestions are that he was apprenticed to a butcher, employed as a lawyer's clerk, or became a soldier or a teacher. It is also possible, and seems quite likely, that he joined one of the companies of players which visited Stratford in the late 1580s. But despite much searching, no records have been found of his activities in these years. Until his marriage in 1582 William, then aged 18, would have lived with his parents at their house in Henley Street. In 1597, he bought New Place and this would have been his Stratford home until his death in 1616. Between those dates we know virtually nothing about where he lived: the general assumption is that his family remained in Henley Street and that he took lodgings during his long absences in London: in the mid 1590s we know he was living in the parish of St Helen's Bishopsgate, and in 1604 in a house in Cripplegate.
Did Shakespeare take his family to London?
There is no evidence that Shakespeare's immediate family, his wife Anne, and his three children, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith, ever accompanied Shakespeare to London. In 1596, his son Hamnet was buried in Stratford. Also, it is very unlikely that Shakespeare would have purchased New Place in 1597 unless he intended it to be his family's home. The evidence we have for Shakespeare's residences in London strongly suggests that he took lodgings at a succession of addresses, an arrangement that would hardly have suited a family. It is worth recording, however, that in January 1616, Stratford's town clerk, in London on business, noted in his diary the 'coming up to town' of Shakespeare and his son-in-law, John Hall. There were two main routes from Stratford for travellers to London during Shakespeare's lifetime. The shorter ran via Shipston on Stour, Long Compton, and Woodstock to Oxford, and from there to High Wycombe, Beaconsfield, Uxbridge and on, through the present-day London suburbs of Acton and Shepherds Bush to Tyburn and so along modern Oxford Street to Holborn and the City. The other route headed from Stratford through Ettington and Pillerton Hersey to Edgehill; continuing from there to Banbury, Buckingham and Aylesbury, joining the alternative route at Uxbridge. A map of 1599 describes the modern Banbury Road as the 'London Way'. Tradition records that Shakespeare favoured the Oxford route, his godson, Sir William Davenant being the son of an Oxford innkeeper. The time taken on these journeys would have varied according to the means of transport (foot, horseback or carriage) and the condition of the roads which would be affected by the weather, becoming muddy and slow in wet weather or hardening into ruts in summer which were tiring for horse and rider. A rider on horseback, in no great hurry, would probably have taken two or three days on the trip, although, at need, the miles could be covered inside a day with a relay of fast horses.
Did Shakespeare visit Italy?
It has been suggested that Shakespeare may have visited northern Italy as some of his plays show a detailed knowledge of local topography of certain towns in this area. Shakespeare produced a number of plays with an Italian background, from his earliest 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' to one of his last 'The Tempest'. In total six of his plays all or partly took place in Italy. Italian literature was so widely read in the society in which Shakespeare lived that it would be surprising if he did not have knowledge of the Italian language. Either Shakespeare visited the north of Italy or he got his information from an Italian living in London. There is no evidence that he went there, but it is very likely that he met John Florio, an apostle of Italian culture in England, tutor to Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.
What was Shakespeare's relationship with Queen Elizabeth like?
When Shakespeare was born in 1564, Elizabeth I was on the throne. She was succeeded by James I in 1603. Elizabeth I was an active and generous patron of the theatre. She had her own acting company called the 'Queen's Men', and stood against the puritans who wished to close down the theatres. Without her support the Elizabethan theatres would not have survived. In the 1590s court performances by acting companies became popular and Shakespeare's company was selected more than any other. Shakespeare does not refer to Queen Elizabeth very often. He makes only one direct reference to her: "a fair vestal throned by the west" (A Midsummer Night's Dream). There is a reference to her baptism at the end of 'Henry VIII', but that section of the play is believed to have been written by Fletcher. It is believed that she liked the character of Falstaff so much, in Henry IV, Part One, that she asked Shakespeare to write a play that showed the character in love - this supposedly inspired 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. When Elizabeth died Shakespeare wrote no elegy for her, unlike most of the poets of the day. As you can see it is not easy to determine Shakespeare's relationship to Elizabeth I. It appears that he worked for her as she demanded but there is no indication that their relationship was closer than that.
What religion was William Shakespeare?
Christianity was the only recognised religion in Elizabethan England. Until the end of Henry VIII's reign, England was also Catholic; but, by a series of measures culminating in the Act of Supremacy in 1534, the Pope was replaced by Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Changes in doctrine followed and by Shakespeare's time a new faith had clearly emerged, which we now call Protestant, Anglican or Church of England. Not surprisingly, many of those brought up as Catholics were not able completely to abandon the old faith, but, as long as they made no obvious display of their doubts, were generally left alone. However, those who publicly declared their loyalty to Catholicism (by refusing, for example, to attend church) were labelled 'papists' and risked regular fining; and when conspiracies and threats of foreign invasion compromised national security, they could be actively persecuted. At the other end of the spectrum was an increasing vocal and troublesome body of 'Puritans' who wished to do away with the sovereign's role in church affairs, together with the bench of bishops. We do not know precisely when Shakespeare's father, John, was born but he would have been brought up a Catholic. From 1534, however, when Henry VIII finally renounced the authority of the Pope and declared himself head of the Church of England, Catholicism was outlawed. Many born before this time had difficulty abandoning their old faith but were generally left alone if they made no public display of their beliefs. John Shakespeare was cited once (in 1592) for failing to attend church, but he gave as his excuse fear of his creditors, so we should not, perhaps, read too much into this. However, even if we were to accept that John had difficulty in renouncing Catholicism, there is no evidence one way or the other for Shakespeare himself. Efforts have been made to determine his personal beliefs (not just his religion) from the evidence of his plays but such an approach must by its very nature remain speculative.
What is Shakespeare famous for?
Shakespeare is best known for being an actor, playwright and theatre administrator. Shakespeare's nickname is ‘The Bard’? The word 'bard' means poet. Shakespeare is called 'The Bard' because he is widely recognised as the greatest poet the world has ever known. In 1769 the actor David Garrick wrote 'For the bard of all bards was a Warwickshire Bard'. This may well be the quote that started the nickname. Shakespeare had several patrons, which is arguably an indication of his fame. As a member of the acting company called the Chamberlain's Men, which from 1603 were know as the King's Men, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain George Carey 2nd Lord Hunsdon and then of James I. Early in his career as a writer Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The First Folio was dedicated after Shakespeare’s death to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip who supported Shakespeare and his plays in his lifetime. There is no real evidence that Shakespeare did retire in the sense that we would understand it. In January 1616, three months before he died, we know that he was living at New Place, but in the years before that it is clear that he was often in London, and still involved in the affairs of the acting company on which much of his income depended.
How did Shakespeare make his money?
We do not know quite how much money Shakespeare made from his writing and, later, from his theatre management, but by 1597 he was sufficiently well off to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford. Between then and 1605 he made two other substantial purchases of property in and around the town and was one of only a few Stratford people at that time to style himself a 'gentleman'. From 1594, when William Shakespeare joined the acting company known as the Chamberlain's (later the King's) men, he became a shareholder in the company's overall income. Later he was a member of the syndicates which owned the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre. On his father's death in 1601, he inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. The land and other property he subsequently purchased was also leased out.
How much property did Shakespeare own?
In Stratford, Shakespeare bought New Place in 1597, 107 acres of farm land and a cottage in Chapel Lane in 1602, and share in the tithes in 1605. In Stratford, he also inherited property in Henley Street on his father's death in 1601. In London, he bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613. He was also a share-holder in the Globe and Blackfriars theatres. However, the concept of absolute ownership of land is quite a modern one. Even our legal term for it, 'freehold', reflects the 'feudal' theory that everybody held land of somebody else in return for certain services. This resulted in a pyramid structure with the sovereign at the top. By Shakespeare's time, this was largely theory rather than practice, but this did not prevent the Crown insisting on certain rights and privileges derived from its status as chief lord: for example, on the death of anyone 'holding' land directly of the sovereign, his or her heir had to pay a 'relief' to enter into their inheritance; and, if the heir was under age, he or she became a royal ward. It was Charles I's attempt to enforce these rights, instead of asking Parliament to vote him money, which was a contributory cause of the Civil War, after which such exactions were abolished. Main structural timbers were usually of oak and sometimes elm. Elm was generally used for floorboards. Oak is long grained, strong, and durable, making it an excellent timber for construction purposes. After it is first felled it is easy to work, but with time the wood hardens, making it difficult to saw or axe across the grain. For building purposes it was therefore used in its 'green', unseasoned state, a short time after felling (normally done in the autumn or winter when the leaves had been shed and there was no sap rising).
Why is Shakespeare still so famous?
There are many reasons why Shakespeare continues to be thought of as one of the greatest of all writers. His plays portray recognisable people in situations that all of us experience at one time or another in our lives - love, marriage, death, mourning, guilt, the need to make difficult choices, separation, reunion and reconciliation among them. They do so with great humanity, tolerance, and wisdom. Because they are written to be acted they are constantly fresh and can be adapted to the place and time they are performed. Their language is wonderfully expressive and powerful, and although it may sometimes seem hard to understand in reading, actors can bring it to vivid life for us. The plays provide actors with some of the most challenging and rewarding roles ever written. They are both entertaining and moving. They help us to understand what it is to be human, and to cope with the problems of being so.
When did Shakespeare die, and where was he buried?
Shakespeare's burial is recorded in Stratford's parish register as having taken place on 25 April 1616. On his monument, inside Stratford's parish church, we read that he died on 23 April. His gravestone, below the monument, does not bear his name, but was believed to be Shakespeare's from at least 1656, and is the first in a row which commemorates other members of his family. We do not know the cause of Shakespeare's death. He made his will on 25 March, almost a month before he died, in which he describes himself as 'in perfect health & memorie, god be praysed'. However, this was a conventional phrase and does not necessarily mean he was not already experiencing symptoms of an illness which later proved fatal. Moreover, his will of 25 March is, apparently, a re-drafting of one made in the January before, suggesting he may have been ill over an even longer period. What this illness may have been, however, we just do not know. There is a curse on Shakespeare's grave which says that 'Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Blest by the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.' Shakespeare's graves is at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Was Shakespeare famous in his own lifetime?
During his lifetime, Shakespeare provoked the envy and admiration of fellow writers, as we know from their surviving comments in print. The First Folio, an unprecedented collection of a playwright's work, is the best illustration of the pre-eminence awarded to him. Ben Jonson's tribute to him, printed in this volume, famously praised him as:
".....Soule of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage...
He was not of an age, but for all time!"
The statue erected to his memory in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, by his family also demonstrates his status as a prosperous man of property as well as a famous poet. We know a lot about him, but because he occupies such a huge part in our culture, we always want to know more.
Where can I find some Elizabethan recipes?
The following books contain information on Elizabethan food and recipes: P W Hammond. 'Food and Feast in Medieval England'. Publ. Alan Sutton Publishers Ltd, 1993 Madge Lorwin. 'Dining with William Shakespeare'. Publ. Atheneum, 1976 Rebecca Price. 'The Compleat Cook: or the Secrets of a Seventeenth Century Housewife'. Publ. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974 F G Emmison. 'Tudor Food and Pastimes'. Publ. Ernest Benn Ltd, 1964. In Shakespeare’s day beverages included beer, cider, perry, wine, fortified wine and spirits. Beer was the alcoholic beverage most commonly drunk. Wine was imported from Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Germany and the Canary Islands and Portugal, with a dry Spanish wine called 'sack' being particularly popular. Spirits, known as 'cordial waters', were rather crude and were believed to be healthy for the heart. Milk was not generally drunk, and there was no tea or coffee. The diet was quite different to today with the staple part of the diet being bread. 'Manchet' (a white bread) was the finest and most expensive, second quality was 'cheat', and third a simple brown bread. Cereals included 'frumenty' (wheat porridge), and 'flummery' (boiled oatmeal). Wheat flour pastry was used for pies and tarts, an essential part of the Elizabethan table. Cream and puddings made with milk were popular. Both cream and hard cheeses were eaten and butter was much used in cookery. Fish was an important part of the nation's diet. Lent, Wednesdays and Saturdays were 'fish days' when no meat was supposed to be consumed. The rich had access to a great variety of red and white meats (lamb, pork, mutton, rabbit, hare, venison, beef and veal). A great variety of fowl was eaten (goose, chicken, pheasant, pigeon, partridge, heron, curlew and lark). If the poor could afford meat, it was usually salt pork. A wide variety of vegetables was eaten. Orchard fruits were cooked rather than eaten raw (which was considered unhealthy), and oranges and lemons were imported for the wealthy. Herbs and spices (cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and saffron) were also used. Attitudes to recreational drugs were also different. There is no proof that Shakespeare used recreational drugs, however there is evidence that substances such as cocaine and myristic acid (a hallucinogenic derived from plants, including nutmeg) were smoked in the 17th Century. In fact, traces of such substances have been detected on fragments of clay pipes dating back to Shakespeare's times, which were excavated from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
What are the four humors?
In Shakespeare's time people believed that the body had 4 humors, in a similar way to the universe have 4 elements (air, fire, water, and earth). The 4 humors were: blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy. These bodily fluids determined the complexion of a person, not just facially but in the sense of physical and mental constitution. If the 4 humors were in their proper proportions a person has perfect health in body and peace of mind. This seldom happened and usually one humor was dominant. The characteristics of the humors: Blood: ruddy, fair, agreeable, cheerful, and courageous, or lusty, riotous, and impractical. Choler: lean and yellowish in complexion, prone to anger, rashness and pride. Phlegm: pale complexion, fat torpid and dull. Melancholy: lean, swarthy, morose and introspective. The planets and the stars influence the humors, as do periods of life, seasons, social position, national origin, types of food eaten, days of the week and hous of the day. All of these factors would determine a person's 'humor'. Find out more at Hall's Croft.
How tall were people in Shakespeare's time?
There is a popular misconception that people in the 16th century were much smaller than today. On average our sixteenth-century ancestors were 5cm (2") smaller than we are but, as now, there was a height range of many centimetres for each sex. Archaeological evidence from the Mary Rose shows a range among the crew of 156.25cm - 180cm (5' 2½" - 6' 0") with an average of 168.75cm (5' 7½"). A survey among young men in 1983 gave an average of 172.5cm (5' 9"), a difference of only 3.75cm (1½"). Most skeletal evidence for height before the raising of the Mary Rose was based on cemetery excavation, but stature always decreases with age as bones degenerate, and thus, the greater the age at death, the smaller the apparent height. Women, as a general rule, are a few centimetres smaller than men, the average height in the sixteenth century being somewhere in the region of 160cm. Clothing and the size of beds have often been used as evidence our forebears were substantially shorter. However, corsetting was the norm from an early age and most clothing was 5cm (2") smaller than the natural body measurements. Beds were often shorter than now as it was the practice to sleep semi-recumbent, supported by bolsters and pillows, not flat, as we do today. Whilst it is true that diet has improved and average height has increased during the 20th century, this must be seen against the poor diet of the bulk of urban working classes during the late 18th century and most of the 19th century, rather than against the much better balanced, albeit restricted diet of earlier centuries.
Is it true that people would only wash once a year in Elizabethan times?
No. Full baths were not taken frequently, but washing of hands and wrists, face, teeth and feet were often done on a daily basis. Lack of regular bathing reflects the inconvenience of filling a tub with sufficient hot water, not a lack of hygiene. Soap was used depending on social circumstance: the aristocracy used expensive soap balls imported from Venice, and moderately affluent households made their own perfumed soap. Teeth were cleaned by first rinsing the mouth with water and vinegar, and then rubbed with a dry, linen cloth. Tooth-picks were also used. Hair was regularly combed and washed in perfumed water, and sometimes treated with a paste of fuller's earth to remove dirt and grease. Beards were groomed and lathered with soap before shaving with a razor.
What were toilet facilities like in Shakespeare's day?
Toilet facilities were quite rudimentary in Shakespeare's day. The simple pot or pewter chamber pot (a wide jug with a handle) was probably the most common toilet receptacle. Shakespeare refers to the chamber pot by its nick-name, 'the jordan', in both 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. The origins of this word are obscure but possibly derive from the flasks of holy, Jordan water brought back from the Holy Land by medieval pilgrims. One bad habit was to empty the contents of the chamber pot or to urinate directly into the hearth. The contents of the chamber pot were normally disposed of into a cess-pit or into the common dung heap. Urine, or 'chamber lye', was sometimes collected and used as an alkaline for laundry purposes. Garden privies, consisting of a wooden seat with a hole cut in it were also used over a cess-pit or an open sewer/stream. These were referred to by such euphemisms as 'the house of office' and the 'jakes'. Wealthy households used close stools which were upholstered box stools with a removeable receptacle, usually a pewter pan, for the collection of urine and faeces. Close stools were used in bedchambers or in a special closet called a 'stool room' or 'privy', or placed behind a screen for privacy. In large houses and castles such rooms were referred to as 'garderobes' (from the French for 'cloakroom') and consisted of a seat over a chute leading directly to a moat or stream. Sir John Harrington invented the water closet before 1600 but it was not in general use until much later.
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