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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Deed Box

Object 3 - Birmingham University PhD student Peter Hewitt explores a small, tattered, leather-bound box with a surprising amount to tell us about Shakespeare's world

Peter Hewitt
Deed box, 1577-1600
Deed Box, 1577 - 1600

There is a small, tattered leather bound box in the SBT's collection that keys into some of the major themes of the sixteenth and seventeenth century experience; themes that William Shakespeare addressed in The Tempest, and which have fundamentally shaped the world in which we live: exploration, colonialism, the printed word and the tension between private morals and public behaviour.

It is a small box of about 5 inches in length and would easily sit on your outstretched hand.  A late 16th century clerk working for the Stratford Corporation has written on the box showing that it was once used to store ‘aquittances’ – a kind of early modern reciept.  As you open the box, however, another story unfolds...

The box is lined with pages from two printed books: Thomas Bentley’s The monument of matrones (1588) and George Best’s account of the voyages of Martin Frobisher (1578).  These printed books were part of a growing market for stories of adventure and works of piety.  The extracts from Best’s book reveal a curious mixture of sea-exploration, colonialism and morality tale, charting Frobisher’s three expeditions (‘blessed’ by Elizabeth I) to discover a north-west passage in order to trade more easily in Asia.  In the inner front edge of the box lid is a single printed citation – ‘1 Cor. 10’ – referring to St. Paul's letter and beginning with the words:Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea

This biblical reference transforms Best's account of sea travel and exploration into one of religious journey and moral edification.  It also links into the pasted extracts from Bentley's devotional work, as the box is lined with passages which contain quotes such as 'yet I applie myself' and 'guilte of deceite'.  Were these texts simply from unwanted books, re-used and pasted into this box to stop the contents spoiling, as many early modern people were fond of doing?  Or were these reminders to the owner to hold fast to godly ways - a private reminder, amidst the public world of work, of the great spiritual journey of life and death?

The individual responsible for lining the box was clearly not completely uninterested in the new lands and bounty discovered in the name of Gloriana.  They have included a passage from Frobisher’s journey which describes a day’s hunting of ‘sundry… wilde foule’, in which fifteen hundred birds were shot.  They also include a passage which observes that the birds in the north are ‘farre thicker clothed with downe and feathers… for as that Countrey is colder, so nature hath provided’.  Here, the keen hunter and food lover mingles with would-be traveller and pious Protestant.

Deed Box, 1577 - 1600
Deed Box, 1577 - 1600 (interior)

Exploration excited the Elizabethans, but in The Tempest, Shakespeare draws our attention to the negative effects of this unbounded enthusiasm.  In a deeply religious age, new horizons, countries, people and resources created new public and private dilemmas.  The unknown box owner could be seen to be reflecting on a very public and 'glorious' enterprise in a personal and pious way.  Whether Shakespeare and the box owner approved of Empire we can never know, but on this evidence, it was evidently part of their consciousness, pricking their conscience as well as tantalizing their imagination.