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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Pocket Dial

Object 38 - How did people tell the time in Shakespeare's day? One possibility might be with the pocket dial described here.

Stephanie Appleton

This week’s 100 object post was written by Stephanie Appleton, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute.

SBT 1910-14 Pocket dial
SBT 1910-14 A late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century pocket dial

Nowadays, we live our lives by the clock. We have alarms to wake us so that we’re at our desks for the start of the working day, our lunch breaks are timed, and we complain if our trains and buses fail to run ‘on time’. In Shakespeare’s day, however, telling the time was a rather more tricky business. Even the very best and most accurate clocks, owned by the wealthiest members of society, were less than reliable compared to today’s standards. Those at the very bottom of the social scale probably only had access to sundials to give them any concrete indication of time: these might be placed on church walls or in other prominent public places.

For those somewhere in the middle of the social spectrum, however, who might have a bit of spare cash they wanted to flash, there were intermediate levels of timekeeping equipment available. One such example is the pocket or ring dial. This particular dial is owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and dates from around 1600. Made from brass, the dial is engraved inside with the hours of the day and outside with the initials of the months. A pierced sliding ring runs around the middle, and in order to tell the time the hole in this sliding band would be lined up with the month on the outside of the dial. When held up to the light, the sun would shine through this hole and onto the correct hour engraved on the inside, thus giving a (fairly) accurate indication of the time.

SBT 1910-14 Pocket dial outside detail
SBT 1910-14 A late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century pocket dial (outside detail)

Although the value of clocks and pocket dials varied greatly, they were nonetheless regarded as luxury items and something of a status symbol. As a result, dials such as this one might be worn suspended around the neck and displayed on the outside of clothing, in order to show off the item in public. Alternatively, these items were small enough to be carried around in one’s pocket, as the name suggests and as Jaques’ reference to the fool in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It (1599) indicates:

Jaques: A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ th’ forest,

A motley fool…

And then he drew a dial from his poke [pocket],

And looking on it with lack-lustre eye

Says very wisely ‘It is ten o’clock.’

‘Thus may we see’, quoth he, ‘how the world wags…’

As You Like It (II.vii. 12 – 23)

Jaques’ comment here indicates both Shakespeare’s familiarity with the item and his understanding of its social and symbolic significance - the fool is “One that hath been a courtier” (court fool) but looking on his dial makes him “so deep contemplative” in offering this “moral on the [passing of] time”.