It’s endlessly fascinating to read Elizabethan practices and customs in the plays of the time. If one shuts one’s eyes to the plots, action and characters of Shakespeare’s plays and looks for other things one can build an understanding of many aspects of Elizabethan life. The conventions of warfare, court life, relationships between the sexes, tavern life, and, indeed, a very wide range of daily life, are all there.
We can learn a lot just from the appearance of such ordinary things as specific types of oak furniture in Shakespeare’s texts. Heavy oak furniture was a central feature of the Elizabethan house. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada there was a new feeling of security and wealthy Elizabethans began to surround themselves with the comforts that security brought. That included expensive and ostentatious furniture. As England was well supplied with oak trees that development was uncomplicated and fast. Those wealthy Elizabethans seem to have been particularly fond of their beds and spent huge amounts of money on them. Shakespeare, himself a wealthy man, took great pride in his beds, mentioning his second best bed in his will. The best known surviving example of an expensive Elizabethan bed is the Great Bed of Ware – displayed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – so famous and remarkable, even in its own time, that it gets a walk on –or lie on – part in ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s a massive oak piece, eleven feet square, with four sturdy oak pillars supporting a heavy oak roof from which draperies were hung to provide complete privacy, with plenty of room for energetic frolicking.
Do we ever think about the word ‘cupboard?’ It’s a strange word if we do think about it, isn’t it? It’s a piece of furniture where we store things that we use every day, like clothes, food, utensils etc., interchangeable, when in a modern kitchen, with the word ‘cabinet.’ In Shakespeare’s time it was simply a kind of table used for displaying the house’s best crockery, mainly the cups – hence its name. In Romeo and Juliet when Capulet is preparing for the party he instructs a servant to get the crockery from the ‘court cupboard.’ ‘Court’ might refer to a French design or it could simply mean short. The Elizabethan cupboard later evolved into something more like the cupboard we know today, with sides and doors.
There are countless interesting references to furniture in Shakespeare. My favourite is the chair. Elizabethans did not generally sit on chairs – they sat on stools. One of the main things that marked the head of the house out from the other family members and servants was that he was the only one who sat on a chair, at the head of the table. Everyone else sat on a simple stool. A chair was thus imbued with great importance. Kings sat on chairs, as did bishops, and so a chair was more akin to a throne than to a stool. We see in Macbeth, that at the banquet only the king, and perhaps the queen, sit on chairs –or thrones. Even the great thanes sit on stools. When Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and has a fit Lady Macbeth reprimands him and tells him ‘you look but on a stool.’ Later he reflects on the ability of one’s dead victims to come out of their graves and overthrow one, which he expresses as pushing us from our stools. The plays abound with references to stools. Even a king, when not in a formal court setting will call for a stool when he wants to sit down, for example in Henry IV part II where the king says. ‘Now fetch me a stool hither by and by, now, sirrah.’
We sit on chairs now, rather than stools but our chairs came from the stool rather than the throne-like chair. Stools developed backs and became known as ‘back stools.’ Those back stools evolved into the chairs we use in our everyday lives today. We find the chairs that came from the Elizabethan chair in royal palaces and cathedrals. And interestingly, a university professor, as the top scholar in a department, occupies a ‘chair’ in that subject, even though he or she may not actually sit on a special chair these days, but like his or her more junior colleagues, on the descendent of the back stool. The modern back stool has lost its name and, somewhere down the line, it’s taken on the grander title of ‘chair.’