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Shakespeare on Show: Memento Mori Seal

Highlighting objects on display in three new exhibitions across the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This blog looks at a wax impression of a memento mori seal from the Elizabethan period.

Sheila McVey
memento mori seal
SBT 1872-4 A Memento Mori Seal from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This seal impression dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and bears the impression of a skull surrounded by a legend which states 'N.R. MEMENTO MORI' (‘remember that you will die').

Seals were primarily employed to authenticate documents, specifically those which pertain to matters of a legal nature. They were either attached directly to the paper or parchment (an applied seal) or were hung loose from it with cord or thread (a pendant seal). If a forger attempted to remove an applied seal from its document, it would almost certainly have broken. A pendant seal would have been easily detached by cutting the cords or strips of parchment, but the forger would then have great difficulty in attaching it to another document and again it would have broken.

The majority of seals dating to Tudor England have an image surrounded by a motto or legend. These would denote the type of job the sender held, or perhaps had their coat of arms. Seals indicated status and were not generally used by the common populace. They were used by the royalty and other people of social rank, lending an air of authority to the document attached.

The seal bearing the impression of a skull does not necessarily indicate status, but rather a philosophical perspective of life.  Seals bearing the motto ‘Memento Mori’ were commonly used in Tudor England to remind people of their fragile mortality and to encourage them to pray and to be more pious; the idea strongly emphasises the Christian concept of divine judgement. ‘Memento Mori’ is a Latin phrase thought to have originated in ancient Rome, although the phrase itself and the themes of mortality surrounding it are seen in various artworks, particularly those relating to Christianity. Unsurprisingly, memento mori was most commonly found in funeral art and architecture, particularly on gravestones.

The styling of this seal impression has some links to Shakespeare; in Love's Labour's Lost (verse 2, 616), Biron mentions ‘A Death’s face in a ring’. The impression on this wax seal would have been made by a signet ring inscribed with the skull and motto. It was not uncommon to have these sorts of rings made in remembrance of loved ones who had passed away. In one particular case in 1585, a gentleman from Worcester named Anthony Sheldon stipulated in his last will and testament for his brothers and sisters 'to each of them a ring off the value of [xxx] A pece wth a deathe heade in remembrance of me.'

This seal impression is currently in the ‘Top Ten Characters’ exhibition at Nash’s House and is displayed in the Hamlet case; the Prince of Denmark’s ponderings about death and the meaning of life are particularly prominent in his infamous Act III soliloquy. It is well-known (though incorrectly) that this soliloquy is accompanied by the actor using a skull as a prop, which relates Hamlet’s philosophical perspectives back to ‘Memento Mori’. It is fitting that the links between the Hamlet’s philosophies about mortality and those embodied by ‘Memento Mori’ are showcased in this exhibition, highlighting the value of having such objects in our collections, which demonstrate the direct influences of Shakespeare’s Tudor world on his writing and characters.