King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

The tools and material of the written word

Despite the advent of the printing press in the late 15th century, the England in which Shakespeare lived and worked was still predominantly a society whose record was in manuscript, rather than printed, form. The books and official publications which formed the nation’s printed output equated to only a fraction of the vast number of documents, ranging from single sheet notes to bound volumes of several hundred leaves, which circulated in manuscript form.  

In spite of their popularity during his lifetime, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were only printed several years after his death, in the First Folio edition of 1623. Yet, although the plays clearly circulated in manuscript form prior to print publication, none of these manuscripts has survived; having served their functional purpose as actors’ and, later, printers’ texts, they were not regarded as of intrinsic or lasting value.  It is only in a handful of official documents – his will, a court case deposition and two documents relating to a property purchase – that undisputed examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting survive.

In this section we consider the tools of writing in Shakespeare’s England – the types of implements and paper he would have used and the style and conventions of handwritings in his day. Several items in this case have been lent by the Museum of Writing, Institute of English Studies, University of London.

Shown in the gallery below, left to right are:

  • A 16th century penknife. This knife is of the standard design used in Shakespeare’s day to cut quill pens of a convenient length and to re-cut or ‘mend’ a pen whose nib had been worn by use. This example is embellished with a decorated tip to the handle.
  • A 17th century goose feather quill pen of the type Shakespeare would have used.
  • A 16th century sander. A sander, or pounce pot, was a repository, usually cylindrical in shape and with a perforated lid, in which sand or pounce (a fine powder, usually made from sandarac resin, ground pumice stone or ground cuttlefish bone or shell) was kept. A writer would sprinkle the contents of the sander over the rough surface of unsized paper (paper to which size, a solution of animal gelatine, had not been added) to make it smooth enough to write on.  Sand or pounce could also be scattered over a recently penned sheet of paper to help the ink to dry. This elegant lidded sander, made from the horn of a goat and with silver fittings, is in the shape of a mermaid.
  • A 17th century capstan inkwell. So called for its shape, which resembles that of a ship’s capstan, and because its solid base and consequent stability made it particularly well suited for use on board ship, the capstan inkwell was a popular design. This 17th century example has a hinged lid and five holes in which the writer could dip the pen.

In this exhibition


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