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Shakespeare Connected - Marking Time in Shakespeare's England

This blog introduces a Shakespeare Connected exhibition, exploring some of the ways in which people experienced time in Shakespeare’s England.

Sophie Cope
New Place Sun Dial
Brass sundial, pre-1759, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT 2005-14)

A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Sophie Cope, University of Birmingham.

“The yeere I compare as I finde for a trueth,
the Spring, Unto childhode, the Sommer to youth.
The harvest to manhode, the winter to age,
all quickly forgot, as a play on a stage.”

So writes the English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser in his Five hundred pointes of good husbandrie, first published in 1557. Here Tusser uses the human life-cycle as a metaphor for the passage of the year, moving swiftly through childhood, youth and manhood to old age, and eventually death. Despite being written some forty years earlier, it is greatly evocative of Shakespeare’s famous passage in As You Like It, in which the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ include ‘the whining schoolboy’, ‘the lover’, associated with the young, and ‘the justice’, associated with the elderly. Indeed, Tusser even compares the fleeting nature of time to ‘a play on a stage’, the memory of which quickly fades.

Tusser’s verse reminds us of the many different ways time could be interpreted in early modern England. Thanks to the work of Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century, we now see time as something purely scientific, impersonal and measurable. Yet this was far from the case in Shakespeare’s time. At this point, even the shape of time was varied; whilst the calendar created a kind of time that was linear and constantly moving forward, the cycles of the seasons and religious calendar meant time was also circular. Tusser invokes this sense of the circularity of time, with his focus on the constant turning of the seasons and the life cycle. Yet linear time was becoming increasingly important. Calendars were printed every year in one of the most popular books of the age – almanacs – and were used alongside astrological information to provide meaning to everyday events. Even more interesting is that year dates began to crop up on a whole range of everyday objects; carved, painted, or sculpted into a person’s physical surroundings, these dated objects provided a record of the linear progress of the years.

Sealskin coffer
Sealskin coffer with brass nail heads, dated 1661. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT 1993-31/39)

How can we explain the increasing interest in time in early modern England? And what motivated people to inscribe their possessions with dates? On the one hand, Protestant teaching placed great emphasis on carefully monitoring how you spent your time and on the brief passage of human life. On the other hand, the increasing diversity and availability of objects in this period, as well as a rise in disposable incomes for the middling sort in particular, meant that the opportunities for buying things which were individually customized were also on the rise. People therefore had the means to mark their own passage through time in the material world, and to then pass these records of themselves on to future generations after their death.

This on-line exhibition explores some of the ways in which people experienced time in Shakespeare’s England, and how they used objects to reflect upon and, most importantly, record their own position within it for all of eternity.