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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Close Stool

Object 96 - Also referred to as a “night” stool, “necessary” stool, or “stool of ease”, these objects were actually toilets in disguise.

Elizabeth Sharrett

Today’s blog is by Elizabeth Sharrett, who is a doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute, and takes a look at a subject that many will find comical but also fascinating.

A list of 100 objects from Shakespeare’s world wouldn’t be complete without this very important item - a close-stool. Also referred to as a “night” stool, “necessary” stool, or “stool of ease”, these objects were actually toilets in disguise. At first glance their primary function may have been overlooked when entering a room. However, the piece of furniture contained a hinged top that opened to reveal a large circular hole, within which a chamber pot, also known as a Jordan as discussed in the very first blog in this series, was placed. 

A late 17th century close stool or toilet in disguise made from English Oak. It is made up of a rectangular lid which sits on top of an engraved box. It is held up by wooden legs that are held together by stretchers.
SBT 1993-31/185. A late 17th century oak close stool

For comfort during the more prolonged occupations of the stool a cushion could be fitted around the hole. The example in the Trust’s collection, on display at Hall’s Croft, is made of English oak and dates from c. 1680. It contains a rectangular moulded lid, and a base compartment with deep moulded and carved side rails. It stands raised on short flattened ball-turned legs with moulded stretchers and turned feet, and is 55cm high, 53.5 cm long, with a seat 46 cms wide.

In his section on physic in The English Housewife, Gervase Markham advises “To have two stools a day and no more”, “Take mercury, cinquefoil [a plant], and mallows [possibly rose of Sharon or hollyhock], and when you make pottage or broth with other herbs, let these herbs before named have most strength in the pottage, and eating thereon it will give you two stools and no more”.[1] Whether or not this was sound medical advice I’m sure it landed people on their close-stools regularly.

Shakespeare engages in literal potty humour in Costard’s reference to the close-stool above. 

Costard: O, sir, you have overthrown Alexander the conqueror. You will be
scraped out of the painted cloth for this. Your lion, that holds his pole-axe sitting
on a close-stool, will be given to Ajax. He will be the ninth Worthy. A conqueror,
and afeard to speak? Run away for shame, Alexander. 

Love’s Labours Lost Act 5 Scene 2

Among other things, Costard puns on Alexander’s coat of arms, which traditionally depicted a lion sitting on a throne, and transforms this regal seat into a toilet. As Peter J. Smith has discussed in his fascinating book on scatological references in literature from Chaucer to Swift, with reference to Costard’s statement, “Shakespeare was evidently fond of this lavatorial pun”.[2] Indeed, the playwright also engages with this humour in Troilus and Cressida when Thersites calls Ajax a “stool for a witch” (2.1.41), punning on his name as a jakes or toilet, and again in All’s Well That Ends Well when the Clown likens the smell of Parolles’ letter to “A paper from Fortune’s close-stool” (5.2.17-18). As we have learned from many of the objects explored in these blogs, the more things change the more they stay the same; and this seems equally true when it comes to the close-stool and the humour surrounding it.

[1] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife ed. Michael R. Best (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986), 33.

[2] Peter J. Smith, Between two stools: Scatology and its representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 75.