Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bronze Mortar

Object 22 - Peter Hewitt looks at an example of a pestle and mortar, as would have been used by Romeo's apothecary

Peter Hewitt
Pestle and mortar
Pestle and mortar, 1600s

Romeo:           I do remember an apothecary,—

And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.

Romeo & Juliet 5.1

Here Romeo recollects a visit to the apothecary: a mixer and dispenser of drugs and poisons, considered among the lowest class of medical practitioner in Shakespeare's time.  As tradesmen, apothecaries catered for the full social spectrum of early modern England; their 'recipes' would be bought by the poor in times of sickness or need, as well as by professional physicians who required special concoctions for their wealthy clients.  Apothecaries would have used a mortar, like the one shown here from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's collection, to grind powders, bruise herbs and pound roots for their customers.

This mortar was probably made by William Land in Houndsditch in London in the early 1600s.  It is made of bronze, but has a very low copper content suggesting that it wasn't very expensive.  The dark surface colour (or patina) we see here has accrued over the centuries – but with constant use the mortar would probably have had a shiny reflective surface, similar to this elaborate late sixteenth century mortar (also in the SBT collection), seen here (SBT 1993 31-92).

Late 16th century mortar

Apothecaries weren't the only people to use mortars.  Most well-to-do people would have had access to a variety of medicines and ingredients from their own stores and gardens, and these required careful preparation.  Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight, a manual of 'huswifery' written in 1675, provides over 450 recipes or 'receipts' – almost all of them requiring a mortar.  It was the intrinsic accessory of the early modern household – used for making powders, oils, and ointments for aches and pains, as well as recipes for pies, stews and even beauty treatments.

For example, Woolley recommends bruising in a mortar the roots of the Cuckoo Pint (a wildflower) and mixing them with rose-water for a mixture to 'beautifie the face'.  In another entry, Woolley suggests grinding amber to a powder in a medicine to induce childbirth:

Take a good quantity of the best Amber, and beat it exceeding small to powder, then sierse it through a fine piece of Lawn, and so drink it in some Broath or Caudle, and it will ... by God's help cause the Patient to be presently Delivered.

The mortar was therefore used in both everyday domestic duties and life-and-death situations.  In this context it is unsurprising to find on this mortar the adage 'MY HOP[E] IS IN THE LORD', which perhaps encouraged the user to put their faith in God's mercy and providence rather than in their own skill and knowledge.