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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bed Curtains

Object 62 - Find out about the bed hangings that would have been familiar in Shakespeare's world

Elizabeth Sharrett

Today's 100 Object post was written by Elizabeth Sharrett, PhD researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.

Othello: “O come in, Emilia! –
Soft…let me the curtains draw.
He closes the bed curtains. (5.2.105-106)

Shortly after Othello has smothered Desdemona on their marriage-bed, her waiting woman Emilia calls to be let into the room. As the quotation above reveals, Othello quickly ‘closes the bed curtains’ to conceal his dead wife’s body, heightening the suspense in the moments between his cover-up and Emilia’s discovery of her murdered mistress.

Jacobean bed hangings
Jacobean style bed hangings from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections (on display at Anne Hathaway's Cottage in the 1990's).

Offstage, in the less dramatic moments of everyday life, bed curtains, or hangings, were essential for warmth as well as privacy, as it was not uncommon for multiple people to sleep in the same room. Throughout the early modern period inventories often listed bed curtains, with other textiles and linens, as highly valuable. In my previous blog on the joint tester bedstead, I described how, though there was probably little structural difference between the “best bed” and the infamous “second best bed” in William Shakespeare’s childhood home, what distinguished them was not their similarly plain frames, but rather the quality of their hangings. John Shakespeare would have literally dressed up his “best bed” with textiles in rich colours.

William Harrison’s Description of England, c.1570, describes the increasing affluence exhibited in houses across the social spectrum, identifying “artificers and many farmers, who…garnish their…joint beds with tapestry and silk hangings” (p.200). Thus, in addition to their practical function, bed curtains were often embellished with embroidery, like the example featured in today’s blog, most likely from the seventeenth century, previously on display at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. These hangings are woven out of wool and linen, two standard fabrics used in early modern England, and display a form of embroidery known as crewelwork.

Jacobean style bed hangings
Embroidered detail on the Jacobean style bed hangings.

Like many surviving examples, these curtains include blues and greens mixed with browns on a natural background. The embroidered images depicted various forms of flora and fauna; these designs were based on pattern books, which became popular across Europe starting in the early sixteenth century. One of the curtains in this set is torn and worn from handling, and one has been remounted on cotton and relined recently, perhaps reflecting a long history of continued use.

One such pattern book, John Taylor’s The Needle’s Excellency, published in 1631, described itself as “a new booke wherin are divers admirable workes wrought with the Needle”. In his poem The Praise of the Needle Taylor idealizes the role of needlework in the lives of women, and hopes the activity of embroidery may “serve for ornament, and not for pride: To cherish vertue, banish idleness”.

Part of the shock of Desdemona’s murder, then, is the domestic setting in which it takes place and the subversion of objects associated with female production and virtue. As Othello ‘closes the bed curtains’ his manipulation of the textiles perhaps created called to mind the more gentle and delicate pastimes of women in their everyday lives.