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The Noble Fool

A guest blog by Jane Nead who has spent hours working in our Reading Room and who has taken inspiration from our collections for her jewellery designs, particularly from Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It".

Jane Nead
jane nead fool
Statue at the top of Henley Street

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

As You Like It, Act V, Scene 1

I have been designing and making jewellery for six years, but it wasn’t until this year that I discovered a way of combining my obsession with Shakespeare and lifelong love of the theatre with my passion for working with sterling silver.

jane nead finished box and pendant
The finished box and pendant

I decided to research As You Like It in performance in order to create the final piece for my City & Guilds jewellery design qualification. I was particularly interested in the characters of Touchstone, Rosalind, and Orlando and began by visiting the RSC's stores to look at original RSC costumes, including David Tennant’s Touchstone costume from the 1996 production of As You Like It, and the intricately embroidered costumes from the 2000 production, designed by Kaffe Fassett and Niki Turner. I then spent several happy days in the Reading Room of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, researching the play, looking at early production photographs, and delving into reviews, programmes, production records, photographs, and costume bibles from the 1996 and 2000 productions.

jane nead touchstone
A touchstone and touch needles, with thanks to the London Assay Office

As a jeweller, it was really exciting to discover that Shakespeare wrote the character of Touchstone for Robert Armin, an actor in his Company and Apprentice Goldsmith. Although it is not clear if Armin actually spent much time practising as a Goldsmith, I am certain that Shakespeare was inspired by his trade; Touchstone’s function in the play is to expose the truth and real touchstones are used to test precious metals and expose counterfeit.

Through my research, I concluded that whilst other characters in the play change, Touchstone doesn’t ever fully embrace life in the Forest of Arden. He remains trapped in his court persona, stepping outside his ‘box’ on occasion to enjoy the freedom of the Forest, but always returning to the comfort of what he knows. So I decided to use a real touchstone in a way that would retain its functionality.

jane nead copper
Early test pieces in copper

When I opened the 2000 Costume Bible, I knew I had hit research gold. It was a treasure trove of embroidery and tapestry patterns that were fantastic inspiration for my initial design ideas and the starting point for the main fretwork pattern on my final piece. An Elizabethan tapestry that features on the front cover of the programme for this production was the source of the flower shape I used within my design.

jane nead sketchbook costume bible
My sketchbook – swatches of fabric from Costume Bible for RSC 2000 production and tracing patterns for fretwork
jane nead sketchbook celia's dress
My sketchbook - Celia’s dress, RSC 2000 production – inspiration for one of the test pieces

My final piece is a set of two pendants handcrafted in sterling silver with some gold elements: a box containing a working touchstone and a Touch Flower pendant with petals that function as touch needles (known alloys in sterling silver, 9ct, 14ct, 18ct and 22ct gold). On the back of the box, is a quote from the play: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It, Act V, Scene 1), and a silhouette of the Fool statue on Henley Street hangs at the end of each of the chains.

jane nead finished pendant
The finished pendant

Designing and creating The Noble Fool was one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m already planning a Collection and looking forward to my next research trip!

jane nead yard bomb
Orlando pins poetry to the trees in ‘As You Like It’ to declare his love for Rosalind. I was delighted and intrigued to discover this tree outside the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library during my research. I had been looking at Kaffe Fassett at the time so this was particularly resonant!

Follow Jane's work on her website.

And look out for her work! Here is her latest project:

jane nead doubt not hamlet
My latest project… a quote bangle. It’s ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire…’ poem from "Hamlet".