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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Inkwell

Object 35 - This inkwell, as a symbol of literacy and education, is an important artefact owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Stephanie Appleton

Stephanie Appleton is currently studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham.

An early 17th-century bell-metal Inkwell, dated 1607.
An early 17th-century bell-metal Inkwell, dated 1607.

My blog this week takes its inspiration from this seventeenth-century inkwell, in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Made from bell metal (a copper-tin alloy), and inscribed in relief with the date 1607, an item like this would have been owned by a literate, relatively wealthy person. In fact it bears the inscription ‘Correlis Dehane’ which could be the name of the continental maker or, more probably, the original owner. In practical terms, this particular inkwell has a chained lid, to protect the ink from exposure to the air when not in use, and quill holders have been added to its sides. But it is also a decorative item: a band of flowers and vines encircles the object and such embellishments indicate that this object was prized for its quality as well as its utility.

Nowadays we take literacy (and by this we commonly mean the ability to read and write) for granted, however things were very different and slightly more complex in the early modern period. Reading and writing didn’t necessarily go hand in hand as we consider them to today, with the ability to read being more common than the ability to write. Nor were the educational paths of men and women as equal as they are today. As a result of these imbalances, generally only elite and well educated men were taught to read and write, while some women and those lower down the social scale may have been able to read basic texts, such as letters or household accounts, but in terms of writing may only have acquired the skill to sign or even simply ‘mark’ their name.

With this in mind, then, take a look at the following quotation from Shakespeare’s 1594 play, Love’s Labour’s Lost:

Sir Nathaniel:
‘Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book.
He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink. His intellect is not replenished, he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts...’

(Love’s Labour’s Lost, IV. ii. 21 - 23)

Here Sir Nathaniel explains to Holofernes, the rather supercilious schoolmaster, why the aptly-named Dull, the constable, fails to understand their witty conversation, which is both convoluted and peppered with Latin phrases. Sir Nathaniel paints a picture of the art of reading and writing as a delicacy which only the finest in society can afford to consume: Dull’s failure to ‘eat paper’ or ‘dr[i]nk ink’ therefore means that he has failed to acquire this superior intellect, and as such must be counted along with the baser people, a mere ‘animal’, impaired in comprehension.