Just before the infamous masque in Romeo and Juliet, in which the ‘star-crossed lovers’ first touch palms to the tune of some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent and memorable verse, the playwright briefly presents his audience with a relatively mundane, everyday domestic scene involving servants scurrying around ‘Capulet’s house’ to make way for the revelry. First Servant shouts orders stating “Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate” (1.4.118-119). The several items listed were, incidentally, all frequently found in lists of goods in houses across the social spectrum in Shakespeare’s England. Perhaps the most common item mentioned is the ‘joint-stool’. Victor Chinnery’s standard work on Oak Furniture describes the joint-stool as “among the most common and familiar piece[s] of furniture in seventeenth century England”.
Easily transportable and relatively cheap, this sturdy but light-weight seat would have also proved useful as a prop on the Renaissance stage. In fact, stools are specifically listed as props in many plays from the period, including The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, and Coriolanus.
Yet while this practical domestic item and its function on the Renaissance stage might, at first glance, appear relatively straightforward, joint-stools may also have triggered associations with magic and folklore for Shakespeare’s audience! While evidence for folk beliefs is hard to find in the historical record, it was thought that witches were able to enchant certain objects, such as stools, to take on their appearance. This allowed them to trick their husbands into believing they were still at home when actually they were out causing harm. During her trial for witchcraft in Scotland in 1662, the housewife Issobell Gowdie admitted in detail to many of the alleged practices of witches. She claimed that witches would place a broom or stool beside their husbands in their beds and say this spell three times over: ‘I lay down this broom or stool, in the Devil’s name, let it not stir until I come again’ so that immediately the object would take on the appearance of the wife beside their husband.
Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool— Fool, King Lear act 3 scene 6
So, while the Fool apologises to Goneril in King Lear for mistaking her for one such item, possibly in an attempt to slight her, it may also have been his way of calling her a witch! Lady Macbeth’s exasperation at her husband’s crazy behaviour likewise alludes to the superstitious associations with joint-stools and witchcraft. For indeed, though she believes that her husband looks ‘but on a stool’ (3.4.68), Macbeth sees something altogether different – the ghost of Banquo!
This notion that such a humble household object, which on the one hand could be associated with warm cozy fires on cold nights, could also be transformed into an agent of malice, would have been an unsettling thought indeed.