The chamber

We are almost at the door of Mr Shakespeare’s ‘chamber’ - the habitual word of the day for a person’s private room or rooms - but for what lies the other side we must resort once more to guesswork and generalization. I do not want to mock up a room full of early-Jacobean furnishings (and anyway early-Jacobean rooms were not exclusively filled with early-Jacobean furniture) but it may be instructive to look into some furnished rooms through the eyes of contemporary writers and artists.

We have a vivid description of a professional writer’s lodgings, published in 1604. The lodgings are unlike Shakespeare’s in that the writer described is a down-and-out pamphleteer, ‘Pierce Pennyless’ (a fictionalized version of the late Thomas Nashe, author of Pierce Penniless), and the passage is a vignette of squalor in a rented room in London’s Pickt-hatch. But the author of the passage is Thomas Middleton, soon to embark on his collaboration with Shakespeare, and on the principle of proximity it seems a good place to start. Pruned of its foliage of extended comic similes it gives the following account of visiting Pierce’s chamber -

I stumbled up two pairs of stairs in the dark, but at last caught in mine eyes the sullen blaze of a melancholy lamp that burnt very tragically upon the narrow desk of a half bedstead . . . The bare privities of the stone walls were hid with two pieces of painted cloth, but so ragged and tottered that one might have seen all nevertheless . . . The testern or shadow over the bed was made of four ells of cobwebs, and a number of small spinners’ ropes hung down for curtains . . . The coverlet was made of pieces a’ black cloth clapt together . . . On this miserable bed’s head lay the old copy of his Supplication [Pierce Penniless] in foul-written hand.43

In this exaggerated but essentially realistic interior shot of a writer’s chamber we see a bed, a fold-down desk, a wick-lamp, and some ‘painted cloth’ hanging over an unplastered wall. One notes that even in these forsaken circumstances the bed is expected to be a four-poster, with a canopy (‘testern’) and curtains, though in Pierce’s case these are formed entirely of cobwebs. Another writer who dodged in and out of debtors’ prison was Thomas Dekker, and we have an actual picture of him in bed - a woodcut of 1620 illustrating his pamphlet, Dekker his Dreame (see Plate 11). It shows a bearded man in a nightcap with an upturned brim; the bed is again a four-poster, with a simple wood-framed canopy, heavy-looking curtains, and sturdy rather than elaborate posts. This is not, of course, Dekker’s bed, but it is the type of bed which a contemporary artist envisaged him as having.

The four-poster nowadays is given a rather rakish, aristocratic air, and one can forget how very practical it was. It offered warmth in winter and protection from flying insects in summer, and its enclosure made it a kind of compartment, a moveable bedroom within a larger multi-use room: the Jacobean bed-sit. On such a bed Othello suffocates Desdemona - ‘Soft, by and by, let me the curtains draw’ - and in such a bed lie the lovers importuned by daylight in Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’:

Busie old foole, unruly sunne, 

why dost thou thus 

Through windowes and through curtaines call on us?44

Shakespeare no doubt slept in one in his room at Silver Street, ‘cribbed’ and ‘confined’ but not unpleasantly so, though we do not know if his nights in this musty cocoon were always peaceful - ‘I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (Hamlet, 2.2.255-7) - or if sleep always came easily to him: ‘My thoughts . . . keep my drooping eyelids open wide, Looking on darkness’ (Sonnet 27). Nor do we know if he always slept there alone. That he was entirely faithful - in other words, celibate - during his long absences in London seems improbable, and some contemporary anecdotes suggest he was not.

Here are two ‘chambers’ visualized by Shakespeare. The first is brief - Sir John Falstaff’s room at the Garter Inn in Windsor, as described by the innkeeper: ‘There’s his chamber, his house, his castle, his standing-bed and truckle-bed. ’Tis painted about with the story of the Prodigal, fresh and new’ (Merry Wives, 4.5.5-7). Again the four-poster, together with a smaller camp-bed (‘truckle’ means on wheels) for a servant. The paintings featuring the story of the Prodigal Son could be wall-hangings or bed-curtains. In Middleton’s Mad World (c. 1605), the same story is embroidered on the bed-curtains in Sir Bounteous Progress’s guest-bedroom, where the bed has ‘cambric sheets’, a ‘cloth o’ tissue canopy’ and curtains ‘wrought in Venice with the story of the Prodigal Child in silk and gold’ (2.2.4-6).

There is more detail in Imogen’s well-appointed ‘bed-chamber’, viewed furtively by the flame of a taper by the wicked Iachimo in Cymbeline (c. 1609). It is a woman’s chamber, but Shakespeare’s visualizing is itself interesting:

To note the chamber - I will write all down: 

Such and such pictures, there the window, such 

The adornment of her bed, the arras, figures, 

Why, such and such, and the contents o’ th’ story . . . (2.2.24-7)

The scene is nominally set in Roman Britain, but the room is in all aspects Jacobean. The ‘adornment’ of the bed is once again the canopy and curtains of the four-poster. The ‘arras’ is a wall-hanging, named after the northern French weaving town of Arras. This particular one is later specified as a ‘tapestry of silk and silver’, and the ‘story’ represented in it is ‘proud Cleopatra when she met her Roman’ (i.e. Antony, thus discreetly plugging a recent Shakespeare production). An arras is distinct from the ‘painted cloths’ that hang in Pierce’s dingy chamber - its design is woven rather than painted - but serves the same basic need to cover the ‘bare privities’ of untreated interior walls. In Merry Wives an arras hangs in the Fords’ parlour, and serves as a hiding-place for Falstaff - ‘I will ensconce me behind the arras.’ Characters hide behind one in Much Ado (‘I whipt me behind the arras’), and fall asleep behind one in 1 Henry IV. Most famously, Hamlet hears ‘something stir’ behind the arras, and stabs at it crying, ‘A rat! A rat!’, thus killing the eavesdropping Polonius. That to fit unseen behind an arras is considered credible, even for the corpulent Falstaff, confirms what common sense suggests, that these tapestries were hung from the ceiling or from brackets, rather than attached to the wall, leaving air-space - and a hiding-place for rats or snoops - behind.

Iachimo also notes the fireplace in Imogen’s chamber, with its ‘figures’ carved on the chimney-piece, and a pair of silver andirons or firedogs sculpted in the form of ‘two winking Cupids’. It is a key feature of his description - it orientates the room (‘the chimney is south the chamber’); its accoutrements are more noticeable than the pictures on the wall, which are mentioned but not described. The fireplace was the heart (or ‘hearth’, originally synonymous) of a room: the defence against the enemies of cold and damp. Damp - on the walls, in the air, in the bed - was one of the elements Englishmen lived in; colds, catarrhs and ‘rheums’ were chronic.

To the bed, the wall-hangings and the fireplace we must add two further items of furniture necessary to the writer - a desk or table, and a chair. A woodcut of the pamphleteer Robert Greene shows him writing at a table covered with a cloth, on which rest an ink-well (or ‘standish’), a paper-knife and a mysterious object which could either be a dust-box (for sprinkling powder over wet ink) or a fat book with a clasped binding. The woodcut is fanciful - it shows the ‘ghost’ of Greene, complete with shroud - but is useful for its casual enumeration of the tools of the writer’s trade. He sits on a straight-backed wooden chair with curved arms, not very comfortable looking. According to Aubrey, Ben Jonson favoured something with more give in it - ‘I have seen his studyeing chaire, which was of strawe, such as olde woemen used.’45

If commodious by the standards of the day, the room was doubtless low ceilinged and ill lit, so I mentally place the writing-desk close to a window, and then immediately start wondering what the window looks out on to. Do we look down into the Mountjoys’ backyard, or out across the roofs and chimneys of Silver Street? Do we see pleasant suburban treetops? From a high window there might be a view down to the garden of Dudley Court, shown in the Treswell survey, or to Lord Windsor’s walled garden to the west. Perhaps one of these gave him the features of Angelo’s garden in Measure for Measure - ‘A garden circummur’d with brick, / Whose western side is with a vineyard back’d’. There is a ‘planched gate’ into the vineyard, and then a more secretive ‘little door / Which from the vineyard to the garden leads’ (4.1.28-33). In the dramatic context this is certainly a town-garden he is describing, and it is plausible that the lines were written in his room on Silver Street in 1604.

On Shakespeare’s desk, and round about it, there are books, manuscripts and notebooks, ‘foul papers’ and ‘fair copies’: the comfortable loam of literature. There is a traditional view of Shakespeare as a thoroughly unbookish sort of writer: intuitive, flowing, ‘natural’, drawing his material from life rather than books - ‘Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child’ who ‘warble[s] his native wood-notes wild’ (John Milton, ‘L’Allegro’). This view was contemporary with him and must to some extent be based on truth. ‘His mind and hand went together,’ wrote the editors of the First Folio, Heminges and Condell, who knew as much about his working methods as any, ‘and what he thought he uttered with that easinesse that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.’ This is the famous comment, but an earlier version of the same idea is found in a verse-letter by Francis Beaumont, written in about 1615 - thus during Shakespeare’s lifetime:

Here I would let slip 

(If I had any in me) scholarship, 

And from all learning keep these lines as clear 

As Shakespeare’s best are, which our heirs shall hear 

Preachers apt to their auditors to show 

How far sometimes a mortal man may go 

By the dim light of Nature.46

The idea of Shakespeare’s ‘natural’ style was enshrined early in the mythos, but in a contrary movement scholars have, at least since the eighteenth century, been patiently unpicking this fabric of native wit to disclose the many threads of ‘learning’, or at any rate reading, that went into it. Shakespeare was a voracious, though probably - like most creative writers - an opportunist, reader. He read for what he needed as often as for pleasure.

In 1604 Shakespeare’s bookshelf - a metaphorical item of furniture, which in the convention of the time would more likely be one or more book-chests - contained the customary mix of old favourites and new purchases or borrowings. Among the former were the works of the Roman poet Ovid, who might be claimed as Shakespeare’s favourite author, and especially the sleek, evocative legends of the Metamorphoses. From this Shakespeare took the story of Venus and Adonis, the subject of his first published poem, and Pyramis and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and much else. In his early tragedy, Titus Andronicus, the book is named as a young boy’s reading, the title perfectly forming the back half of an iambic pentameter -

TITUS: What book is that . . . ?

lucius: Grandsire, ’tis Ovid’s Metamorphoses: My mother gave it me . . . (4.1.41-3)

And in Cymbeline it is the book Iachimo finds by Imogen’s bedside:

She hath been reading late: 

The tale of Tereus - here the leaf’s turn’d down . . . (2.2.44-5).

Shakespeare was still turning the leaves of the Metamorphoses at the end of his career. Writing Prospero’s valediction to the spirits in The Tempest (c. 1610) he had before him the incantations of the sorceress Medea. In the standard 1567 translation by Arthur Golding the passage begins:

Ye airs and winds, ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone,

Of standing lakes, and of the night, approach ye everychone,

Through help of whom (the crooked banks much wondering at the thing)

I have compelled streams to run clean backward to their spring.

(Metamorphoses 7.197-200)

Shakespeare writes:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves, 

And ye that on the sands with printless foot 

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him 

When he comes back . . . (5.1.33-6)

Comparisons like this are a master-class. His first line is almost straight plagiarism, but then comes the airy elaboration of the next lines, transforming the archaic ‘fourteeners’ of Golding’s Ovid to the litheness and fluency of Shakespeare’s late blank verse. Some details of the speech show that he also used the original text of the poem, employing his skills in Latin, which Jonson perhaps under-estimated, or deliberately undervalued, when he spoke of Shakespeare’s ‘small Latin and less Greek’.47

Also much thumbed is his copy of Plutarch’s Lives, in Sir Thomas North’s vigorous English version: the first edition was 1579, but perhaps the edition in Shakespeare’s chest was that of 1595, published by his old Stratford friend Richard Field. He first used North’s Plutarch extensively for Julius Caesar, which opened the new Globe theatre in 1599. The Life of Mark Antony was of particular interest, and as he read it for Caesar other stories were lit on the back burner - not just Antony and Cleopatra but also Timon, whose life is sketched there en passant. Another trusty was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), the mother-lode of Shakespeare’s history plays, not much consulted of late but soon to be of use again in its account of the reign of an eleventh-century Scottish king, Macbeth.

Two books published in 1603 are soon to be found on his desk. One is an expos’ of supposed exorcisms performed by Catholic priests, unsnappily titled A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures . . . under the pretence of casting out devils, practised by Edmunds alias Weston a Jesuit, and divers Romish priests his wicked associates. Its author, Samuel Harsnett, was rector of St Margaret’s on New Fish Street Hill, and chaplain to the Bishop of London (and thereby involved in the licensing of books for the press). Some think Shakespeare’s interest in it relates to his own involvement in the clandestine Catholic world of the Midlands, but I would relate it more to authorial opportunism. He found in Harsnett’s tract an arcane and archaic language of religious mania, which proved decisive in one of his strangest and greatest stage-creations, the possessed beggar ‘Poor Tom’ in King Lear. Many of the demons and familiars invoked by Tom - Flibbertigibbet, Smulkin, Modo, Mahu, Hoppedance, Obidicut and the rest - come straight from the pages of Harsnett.48

Also published in 1603 was an influential book which reflects and perhaps partly inspires the questioning temper of the problem plays or tragicomedies. This was the handsome folio edition of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated from the French by John Florio. The Montaigne motto, ‘Que scays-je’ - ‘What do I know?’, as distinct, perhaps, from ‘What do I erroneously assume that I know?’ - echoes through these plays, which interrogate and indeed ‘assay’ (the original sense of the Montaignian ‘essai’) the philosophical and ethical assumptions of the age. Isabella’s words in Measure are an attenuated echo of this motto - ‘Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know’ (2.2.137-8).

Shakespeare doubtless knew the translator Florio, twelve years his senior, Italian by blood but English born - a brilliant linguist, a prickly and proud figure. They may have met in the circle of the young Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated two poems in 1593-4. Florio was a tutor to the Earl in the early 1590s. It is sometimes said that the pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is a caricature of Florio, done for the enjoyment of the Southampton set - this overstates the case, but it is true Holofernes quotes from Florio’s book of Italian proverbs, the Gardine of Recreations (1591).49 At any rate, Florio is a man Shakespeare knows - for a writer in Jacobean London there is this dimension of acquaintance in his reading. The literary circuit was small and crowded; they knew one another’s voices.

His reading of Montaigne seeps identifiably into the Silver Street tragicomedies. ‘To embrace all the rules of our life into one’, writes Montaigne, ‘is at all times to will, and not to will, one same thing.’ This is the shuttling, contradictory mentality of Measure for Measure, in which characters find themselves ‘at war ’twixt will and will not’. And when Montaigne observes that ‘Man all in all is but a botching and party-coloured work,’ and that ‘the best good I have hath some vicious taint’, we hear a foretaste of the famous line in All’s Well, ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.’ The plays’ shifts of tone and uncertainties of message reflect Montaigne’s drastic disclaimer, ‘I have nothing to say, entirely, simply and with solidity of myself, without confusion, disorder, blending, mingling.’50

Shakespeare read Florio’s Montaigne, and may well have owned a copy, but if he did it is not the copy now in the British Library which bears on the verso of the endpaper the signature ‘Willm Shakspere’. This is now held to be a forgery, though a competent one, probably dating from the late eighteenth century.51

Some other books which might be seen in his room on Silver Street include Richard Knolles’s History of the Turkes (1603), used in Othello for detail about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus; George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (1578) and Cinthio’s Epitia (1583), both sources of Measure for Measure; and an unspecified Latin edition of the works of Lucian containing the story of ‘Timon the Misanthrope’, originally written in Greek in the second century AD.

The chief narrative source of All’s Well was a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Shakespeare used an English translation of the story, found in William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566), a popular collection of tales. But linguistic traces suggest that for this French-set play Shakespeare also made use of a French version of the Decameron by Antoine de Ma¸on, published in 1545 and frequently reprinted.52 The textual evidence is not conclusive, but Shakespeare’s presence in a French household makes it plausible - perhaps it was a book owned by one of the Mountjoys.

Amid this small jumble of books one might note also a pair of publications, dated 1603 and 1604 - not de-luxe editions like the Montaigne folio, but rather shoddily printed quartos. The earlier of the two title-pages reads: ‘THE / Tragicall Historie of / HAMLET / Prince of Denmarke / By William Shake-speare. / As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse ser- / vants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two U- / niversities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where.’ This book, ‘printed for N.L [Nicholas Ling] and Iohn Trundell’, is the first edition of Hamlet. It is nowadays generally known as the ‘bad quarto’ (or to bibliographers, ‘Q1’). It was swiftly supplanted by the ‘good quarto’ of 1604 (‘Q2’), which is described on the title-page as ‘Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie’. The latter is the play we know: the text in the First Folio (‘F1’) is based on it. The earlier quarto has some interesting variations, but is generally a corrupt or impoverished text, drained of much of the complex poetry and quick philosophical skirmishing which are the hallmarks of Hamlet. Thus Q1’s version of the Prince’s best-known soliloquy begins:

To be or not to be, I there’s the point. 

To die, to sleepe, is that all? I all: 

No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes . . .

To the casual reader this may look like gibberish. It is not - ‘I’ was a common spelling of ‘aye’ - but it is clearly an inferior version of the soliloquy. The language is blunted (‘there it goes’ instead of ‘there’s the rub’) and the speech is drastically truncated by the loss of seven famous lines (which should come immediately after the first), beginning ‘Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer . . .’, and ending with that wonderful synopsis of the human condition - ‘The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ (3.1.58-65).

Of course, to say that Q1 has truncated a speech which ‘should’ be longer and richer is already to make assumptions about the relation of the two quartos. The standard hypothesis is that Q1 is a ‘memorial reconstruction’ by an actor who had performed in the play (possibly the one playing Marcellus). An alternative theory is that it represents an early version of the play by Shakespeare himself, with Q2 a later rewrite. There certainly was an earlier Hamlet (sometimes called, with a professorial twinkle, the ‘Ur-Hamlet’). It is referred to punningly by Nashe as early as 1589 - ‘he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches’ - and a performance was seen by the author Thomas Lodge at one of the Shoreditch playhouses some time before 1596.53

These textual mysteries make it hard to know the status of the 1603 quarto in Shakespeare’s mind, but that he was irritated by its publication seems inevitable. Whether the product of an amnesiac actor or of Shakespeare’s own rougher skills in his prentice-years, the text was purloined and the publication of it unauthorized. It is one of various piracies of Shakespeare playscripts - plays such as Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Wives first appeared in corrupt editions. The supplanting of such texts was one of the guiding editorial principles of the First Folio: ‘Where before you were abus’d with diverse stolne and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious imposters that expos’d [published] them, even those are now offered to your view cur’d and perfect in their limbes.’

This indignation at rapacious publishers was likely shared by Shakespeare himself. There are two reported instances of him in a temper with someone, and in each case the cause is a publication. The first, already mentioned, is the spat with Henry Chettle in 1592, further to the slurs against ‘Shakescene’ in Greene’s Groatsworth. The second followed the publication of a poetry collection, The Passionate Pilgrim, in 1599. The title-page announced it as ‘by W. Shakespeare’, though only five of the poems in it were his, two of them previously unpublished sonnets and all of them printed without permission. The publisher was William Jaggard. The existence of Shakespeare’s ‘sugared sonnets among his private friends’ had been mentioned in print the previous year, and this may have sharpened Jaggard’s appetite. Shakespeare’s reaction is recorded by Thomas Heywood in 1612, when a new edition of The Passionate Pilgrim was published, still ‘by’ Shakespeare - ‘The author I know much offended with Mr Jaggard that (altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name’.54

Publishers, said the poet Michael Drayton, ‘are a company of base knaves whom I both scorn and kick at’, and perhaps there were times when Shakespeare thought the same.55 Ironically, it was the piratical Mr Jaggard who was one of the prime movers of the posthumous First Folio, and we might think he has thereby made amends for his earlier ‘boldness’ with Shakespeare’s name. The Folio includes eighteen previously unpublished plays - among them masterpieces like MacbethTwelfth Night and The Tempest - which might otherwise have been lost for ever.

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