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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Mounted Tortoise Shell

Object 65 - A mounted seventeenth century tortoise shell from the Collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Victoria Jackson

This post was written by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

Come, thou tortoise, when?

— The Tempest, 1.2.317
SBT 2006-34 Tortoise shell box
SBT 2006-34 An Indian starred tortoise shell with seventeenth-century European silver mounts, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.

When Prospero first addresses Caliban in act 1 of The Tempest he refers to him as a tortoise.  By calling him a tortoise, Prospero remarks on his slowness and associates him with a beast, or something that is not human.  Interestingly, the reference also draws a connection between the foreign quality of Caliban and the exotic nature of tortoises, although the similarities stop there as tortoise shells were often considered objects of beauty and charm, while poor Caliban was certainly considered none of those things.

SBT 2006-34 Tortoise shell box (open)
SBT 2006-34 Inside the seventeenth century tortoise shell box.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds in its collections a little tortoise shell enclosed with silver mounts which is dated to the seventeenth century.  The two halves of the shell have been separated but are secured together by two hinges on one side.  On the opposite side a clasp is mounted, transforming the shell into a kind of box or container.  The shell has been identified as that of an Indian star tortoise, found in dry areas of India and Sri Lanka.  Although the shell looks deceptively large in the image, it is actually quite small: it is only 7cm tall, 8cm wide, and 11cm in length, so roughly the size of a mango.

But determining what a little tortoise shell box might have been used for, and how, is challenging.  We might speculate that such a precious and fragile object might have been intended to contain equally precious items.  Perhaps it held cosmetics?  Or maybe it was used as a jewellery box?  Or possibly it was a snuff box, small enough to be transported with its owner throughout their day?

Whatever its use though, tortoise shells were intended for display: they were items meant to be seen.  They were often included in something called a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which was a room specially designed for the display of valuable, exotic and rare objects, both natural and man-made.  The earliest known cabinet of curiosities in England was started in the early seventeenth century by John Tradescant (1570s-1638) which included all types of shells, plants, and berries from all over the world, a dodo bird,  a walrus, narwhale tusks, and ‘rarities’ like a piece of the True Cross and a mermaid’s hand.  (It is not surprising that this came to be known as ‘Tradescant’s Ark’).

SBT 2006-34 Tortoise shell box (mounts detail)
Close-up of the seventeenth century hinges attached to the tortoise shell.

But like the cabinet of curiosities, the tortoise shell box is about exhibiting the power and authority of man over nature.  The original inhabitant of this shell has been ripped out, and his home mounted in silver and converted into a container for someone’s personal use.  A similar object can be seen on the V&A Collections database. This is a tortoise shell which has been mounted with a brass head, feet and wheels.  A mechanism inside the shell causes it to roll slowly along whatever surface it is placed upon.  As it rolls, the tortoise’s brass head moves rhythmically in and out of its body and the brass merman resting on the top of the shell moves his arms up and down.

While these are certainly objects of considerable beauty and imagination, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the poor tortoises that have been removed from their homes and discarded.  These objects, however, are demonstrations of the many lives objects can possess: once a home to a tortoise, now a ‘curious’ container for personal use.