Victoria Jackson is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham.
'And say you would present her at the leet
Because she brought stone jugs and no sealed quarts.'
The Taming of the Shrew, Induction II, 83-84.
At first glance, this brown stoneware jug may not be the most eye-catching object on display in the houses cared for by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Severely broken and crudely repaired, this humble looking little brown jug could be easily passed over, but this seemingly commonplace object actually reveals a great deal about belief and everyday life in the Elizabethan domestic household. Containing either ale or wine, this object would have had great social and spiritual significance - in part because of the inclusion of a fascinating religious scene that decorates the body of the jug. The pictorial scene tells the story of the ‘Feast of Herod’ which is recounted in the Gospels Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 14-29. Herod, ruler of Galilee and Perea, is best known in history for his role in the events that led to the executions of both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. In this scene, Herod sits enthroned at a dining table beneath a canopy with his wife, Herodias, seated next to him. A figure with what looks to be an unsheathed sword stands facing the dining table with his back to the viewer. To the right a young girl approaches the table carrying a large platter with a decapitated head upon it.
According to the narrative, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced before Herod at a feast and as a reward was offered anything she wanted. Following persuasion from her mother, Salome asked for the head of the Saint on a platter. This is the pivotal moment the jug portrays; Salome cautiously approaching the feast carrying with her the head of John the Baptist as the executioner re-sheaths his sword.
So, in addition to containing a liquid, the jug provides us with information about the kind of individuals or households who would have used an object such as this. The choice of the feast of Herod as a biblical scene possibly worked as a prompt for meditation on the spiritual significance of the story, such as the fact that while Herod is taking pleasure from dining and enjoying the entertainment, the saintly John the Baptist is, rather impulsively, put to death. In this manner, the object may work to direct the memory toward religious and moral concerns and thereby prevent overindulging the body through eating and drinking. It is possible to imagine this jug placed at the centre of the dining table during mealtimes, which provided the routine focus to domestic life. In this way a simple brown jug made for the practical purpose of holding liquid could also operate to express and construct the religious ideals of a household. This could even help to prevent the kind of excessive indulgence in the content of such ‘stone jugs’ exhibited by the drunkard Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew.