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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "Shakespeare's House: A Window Onto His Life and Legacy" by Richard Schoch

Shakespeare's House: A Window Onto His Life and Legacy by Richard Schoch
Shakespeare's House: A Window Onto His Life and Legacy by Richard Schoch

What might home life have been like for Shakespeare’s family? This excerpt from Richard Schoch’s new book, Shakespeare’s House: A Window Onto His Life and Legacy, focuses on a particular room in Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon: the hall. Schoch, Professor of Drama at Queen’s University Belfast, describes the activities that would go on there, the social significance of the space, and what kind of furnishings Shakespeare’s family would likely have been surrounded by.


The hall was where Shakespeare’s family dined, prayed together, played music, enjoyed backgammon or chess, told stories – ‘In winter’s tedious nights’, Richard II counsels his queen, ‘sit by the fire / With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales’ (4.1.40–1) – and spent the minimal leisure time they had. As the room where guests were received, it was also where a household openly displayed its wealth, whether through wood panelling, pewter flatware or lead glass windows. Literally and symbolically, it was the house’s centre, the only room where everyone gathered.

John Shakespeare was for a time affluent enough to have indulged, if he so wished, in the luxury of a few glass windows: small triangular or diamond-shaped pieces of glass set into a wooden lattice in the surrounding frame, as seen throughout the Birthplace today. His neighbour Anne Hiccox, a tailor’s widow, had several glass windows in her house. A tailor earned roughly the same as a glover, so we can safely assume that if the Hiccox family could afford glass windows then so could the Shakespeare family. Glass, being expensive, was likely used only for the front windows, where it could arouse the envy of others. Most windows would have been covered with small strips of much cheaper (and surprisingly translucent) polished cow horn, slotted into a cross-hatched leaden lattice.

Household inventories from the time suggest that ten or so people could easily gather in the hall, most sitting on chairs or joint stools, while others crowded onto benches or perched atop a low chest in which blankets, sheets, tablecloths and table napkins were stored. In The Taming of the Shrew, Gremio tries to win Bianca’s favour by bragging about the luxury items kept safe in his ‘cypress chests’: fine linens, pear-studded cushions, gold needlework, pewter, brass and ‘all things that belongs / To house or housekeeping’ (3.1.355, 360). The chest’s inset front panels could be decorated – one surviving chest, from the 1570s, shows the Old Testament story of Judith holding the head of the beheaded Holofernes – but the lid was kept plain so that it could be used for seating. Single chairs were prized, with the best ones reserved for the exclusive use of the house’s master and mistress.

Anywhere anybody sat in an ordinary Elizabethan home was, by our standards, uncomfortable, but at least the chairs had backs, however unyieldingly straight. The hard seat of a wooden chair might be softened with a sack of wool or a horsehair-stuffed cushion. Upholstered chairs were a luxury affordable to only the wealthiest households.

In Elizabethan folklore, witches and ghosts disguised themselves as humble joint stools, the better to go about in secret their unearthly business. When Macbeth stares at Banquo’s ghost seated at the banquet table, his wife reassures him that nothing is there: ‘When all’s done, / You look but on a stool’ (3.4.63–4). Yet it’s not so clear that she’s right. Is the joint stool really only a joint stool? Or is it, as her guilty husband fears, possessed by a supernatural spirit? When it came to Elizabethan furniture, you could never be completely certain that it wasn’t bewitched.

The entire household – master and mistress, children, apprentices, servants – took their main meal at midday, seated around a large wooden trestle table with detachable parts. If there weren’t enough chairs, the lowest members of the household ate standing up. When not used, the table was dismantled and placed against a wall to free up living space. Seated at the head of the table, the master of the house made his authority visible with the simple gesture of resting his arms on the arms of his chair. No other chair in the room had arms. He looked like a king occupying his throne. And in his own house, every master was every inch a king.

For Shakespeare, the idea that people living under the same roof would eat at different times, or somewhere other than at the communal table or while absorbed in doing something else, would have felt utterly alien. This is not to idealize Elizabethan family life but rather to emphasize that an Elizabethan household was meant to function as a rule-obeying, cohesive unit. Family unity was expressed, day after well-ordered day, in how they used the rooms in their house.

Much of the furniture in John Shakespeare’s hall – high narrow storage cupboard, dining table, benches – would strike us as massive and crude, but that’s a misleading impression. The dark patina of old oak, which deepens over time, obscures the reality that when such furniture was new, it was as light as modern oak. Tables, chests and cupboards may well have been painted, their original bright appearance long since faded. Cushions, table carpets and other textiles would have softened the furniture’s hard edges, adding comfort, texture and yet more vibrant colour. Above all, these great blocks of wood symbolized to Elizabethans both durability and long life. Furniture was often inherited, just as the house itself was passed down from father to firstborn son. Or, in Shakespeare’s case, from father to firstborn daughter. He bequeathed his ‘Household stuffe’ – a phrase he had used two decades earlier, in The Taming of the Shrew – to his elder daughter Susanna and her husband, John Hall, even though they were hardly penurious.

No one in 1616 would have thought any of that unusual. Indeed, people in Shakespeare’s time would be puzzled by our modern compulsion to buy new furniture merely to follow the latest trend. The idea that perfectly useable furniture could somehow fall out of fashion, and thus need replacing, made no sense to them. When Elizabethans bought household goods, it was not so much to acquire new items as to acquire more opulent versions of what they already possessed. To replace a wooden spoon with a silver one, a joint stool with a carved chair or a horsehair mattress with one softened by feathers. That, they understood. Because as soon as a family had enough money to trade up, they did.

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury. Shakespeare’s House: A Window onto his Life and Legacy, pg. 21-22 © 2023. By Richard Schoch (Queen’s University Belfast, UK).