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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Quill pen

Object 84 - Read about this iconic writing tool, often closely associated with Shakespeare himself

Stephanie Appleton

This is by Stephanie Appleton, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

‘Her maid is gone, and she prepares to write,

First hovering o’er the paper with her quill…’ (The Rape of Lucrece, lines 1296 – 1297)


When we imagine Shakespeare writing his plays, the first image which springs to mind is probably of Shakespeare sitting at a desk, paper in front of him, quill in hand. This vision of the Bard is also immortalised in his funerary monument in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, which hangs on the north wall of the chancel to the left of his grave.  Yet the quill, one of the most evocative of objects when we think about Shakespeare, was also among the most ephemeral, and examples from this period unfortunately do not survive. (Although the Victoria and Albert Museum has a couple of quill pen holders; one from fifteenth-century Italy made of leather, and  a German brass example, dating to around 1600)

Due to their form and the nature of their use, quill pens were disposable items in this period. Most quills were made from goose feathers (although apparently Queen Elizabeth I preferred to use swan feathers!) and each one would have to be properly prepared before it could be used for writing. Stages involved soaking the feather in water to allow removal of the internal membrane, along with cutting the stem to the correct angle and incising a functioning nib. Just preparing a quill must have been an art in itself, and no doubt many a feather was cast aside by a frustrated scribe who had been too hasty with his knife. Once a quill was ready to use, any writing would slowly cause the nib to wear away, meaning that a new nib had to be cut into each feather regularly, until eventually the pen would be too small to write with and a new feather would be needed to start again. And contrary to popular belief and what we see in films, the feathers on each quill would have been stripped down rather than left intact, drooping over the hand in what to us seems such an elegant manner. As a result, the quill would not have looked dissimilar to the writing implements we’re used to today, as you can see in this 1611 guide to handwriting on the Folger Shakespeare Library. Contemporaries even referred to the quill as a ‘pen’ or ‘quill pen’.

An early 17th-century bell-metal Inkwell, dated 1607.

It’s interesting to think about how many quills Shakespeare must have gone through while writing his plays, sonnets and other poetry: they were such an integral part of his work and legacy yet we have no trace of them. If we had one of his pens we might be able to find out about his writing style from the way the nib was worn; we might even find an inky fingerprint on the shaft. Historians studying people from this time often face the problem of missing or incomplete artefacts: the clothing of ‘ordinary’ people, for example, rarely survives (it was often worn out and even then reused or made into other clothing); many documents have been lost in the course of time (the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays is another tantalising example) and even household objects like earthenware pots are often badly damaged or fragmentary.

In 2005 Lord Nelson’s quill was sold at auction for £8,400 – if, by some happy chance, one of Shakespeare’s own pens had been preserved, we can only imagine the value which would be put on it today. Ten thousand pounds? A hundred thousand pounds? Would even a million pounds be out of the question? If money was no object, what would you pay to own the Bard’s quill? Or is there another item of Shakespeare’s which you’d prefer to own? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

Find out more about the inkwell featured in the photograph above in our earlier post, Object 35 - Tudor Inkwell.

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