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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Oak Chest

Object 16 - This post is about an oak chest of around 1575, carved with figures from classical and biblical mythology. The chest is probably French and the figures depict Lucretia, Mars and Judith.

Stephanie Appleton

Today's post comes from Stephanie Appleton, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.

16th century oak chest (SBT 1993-31/268)

'In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,/ Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,/ Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss'd with pearl,/ Valance of Venice gold in needle-work;/ Pewter and brass, and all things that belongs/ To house or housekeeping.'

-The Taming of the Shrew (II.1. 1199)

These figures are connected by a common theme. The story of Lucretia, whose rape and subsequent suicide was thought to have sparked the creation of the Roman Republic, is the subject of Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece. Judith is a heroine from the Old Testament. A beautiful widow from a city besieged by an army under Holofernes’ command, Judith infiltrated the enemy camp, seduced Holofernes and plied him with alcohol until he passed out in a drunken stupor. She then cut off his head and carried it back to her city, thereby ending the siege. The carving on the chest shows Judith holding the decapitated head of Holofernes. In the central panel is Mars, the Roman God of War. This makes sense as war was a consequence of Lucretia’s fate while Judith’s action brought an end to conflict.

Detail of Judith holding Holofernes' head

Chests would have been a familiar sight in most early modern homes, from the nobility to the ‘middling sort’, although the quality of wood and amount of decoration would have varied according to social status and wealth. The presence of these heroic female figures indicate how this sort of chest was often associated with women; they were commonly passed down from mother to daughter, perhaps with a view to the daughter’s marriage, and may have contained essential items which a woman would bring to her new home, such as linen. A chest or ‘coffer’ such as this would usually be found in the bedroom at the foot of the bed, and would be used to store the bed linen along with any other valuable items which the owners of the house wanted to keep safe, as indicated by Gremio’s description of the contents of his ‘cypress chests’ in The Taming of the Shrew. This particular chest has a lock, although the current lock is a later replacement.

Shakespeare introduces a chest as a dramatic device to create tension in his play, Cymbeline, a story which alludes to the myth of Lucretia. Imogen agrees to safeguard a ‘trunk’, or large chest, containing valuable plate and jewels in her bedchamber. Iachimo hides in this trunk and later emerges in Imogen’s room while she sleeps, in order to gather intimate details about her bedroom and her body so that he can trick her beloved Posthumous into thinking that she has been unfaithful:

She sleeps. Iachimo comes from the trunk ... “But my design - / To note the chamber: I will write all down. / Such and such pictures; there the window ... Ah, but some natural notes about her body / Above ten thousand meaner movables / Would testify t’enrich mine inventory.” (2. 2. 23-30)

To an audience watching this play in Shakespeare’s time, this scene would have been both shocking and thrilling. Because a chest was a common domestic object that was particularly associated with women and their possessions in preparation for marriage, hiding in this object in order to spy on Imogen represents a violation of her personal space and also, by extension, her body. This is acknowledged by Iachimo, who compares himself to the rapist Tarquin breaking into Lucretia’s room: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes, ere he waken'd / The chastity he wounded.” By employing a chest in this way, Shakespeare takes an ordinary household object and uses it to add depth of meaning to this extraordinary scene.