Elizabeth Sharrett is studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.
“If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me / In one of those same sheets.” Desdemona, Othello, 4.3.
Today’s object is a white linen sheet, most likely from the late sixteenth or seventeenth century. Such surviving textiles from the period are extremely rare, as they are highly susceptible to decay. The sheet has drawn threadwork and a lace insert, and includes the initials E.H. worked in blue thread on either side. These initials possibly indicate that it was owned by Elizabeth Hathaway, born 1626, or one of the other Elizabeths in the Hathaway family born later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Though the embroidery is perhaps later in date than the actual linen, such embellishments were fairly common in Shakespeare's lifetime. In the will of the widow Elizabeth Jenyson, made in 1605, “a new mattress marked with my name…[and] a pair of fine sheets of my own making marked with the letters E.F.’ are left to her daughter. Linens were important items in the early modern household and were given high values in inventories of goods.
These objects also played an integral role in the early modern death ritual, as a tool in the spiritual preparation of an individual for the afterlife. Desdemona’s morbid request to Emilia in Othello alludes to the practice among gentry women who sometimes used their wedding sheets as their burial shrouds, as in the case of the Jacobean mother Elizabeth Jocelin. Upon feeling the first movements of her unborn baby, she ‘secretly tooke order for the buying of a new winding-sheet,” and after the child’s birth, "then instantly called for her winding sheet to bee brought forth and laied upon her." She died nine days later. Though the sheet at Anne Hathaway’s was obviously not used for such a purpose, it provides a rare glimpse of what these items might have looked like. Besides the occasional survivor, such as this particular sheet, and the record of their presence in wills and inventories, the most common evidence for these objects are sixteenth and seventeenth-century woodcuts, engravings, and funerary monuments, such as the print of John Donne posing in his winding sheet. Given the presence of winding sheets in the wider visual and material culture, Desdemona’s statement would certainly have resonated with an audience who were familiar with the custom of burying women in their sheets.