shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weights & measures, ducats & daughters

"Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!"

                                          The Merchant of Venice, II, viii

Salanio mimics Shylock's agonized cries upon learning that his daughter Jessica has not only deserted him, but has taken "a sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats / Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!" Critics who choose to see the worst in Shylock pillory him for mentioning his money in the same breath that gasps over the loss of his daughter.

Without question, Shakespeare portrays Shylock as having great business acumen and the astute attention to detail that usually accompanies it. The Venetian ducat, a gold coin introduced in the thirteenth century and widely used for hundreds of years thereafter, was among the most highly regarded of a variety of coinages used throughout Europe. It was one of the least suspect of coins used for exchange; many types of coins became devalued by degraded production methods involving lower gold and silver ratios, or were subjected to widespread "clipping" of their edges, so that as little precious metal as possible was contained in the coin.

To combat coin devaluation, balance scales were often used by merchants, with standardized weights used on one side to ensure that different coins weighed what they were supposed to weigh. In the collection of Agecroft Hall is a set of such weights and a small balance scale with round and triangular pans, made in Amsterdam in 1656 by one Jacob Drielenburg.

Each of the 34 square brass weights (including those pictured) is specifically made to correspond to the proper weight of a particular type of gold coin. Coins from all over Europe, the Levant, and elsewhere passed through the hands of merchants in England and on the continent. No one likes to be cheated: if a ducat didn't weigh what it was supposed to weigh, it was unacceptable.

Agecroft Hall acquired the set from Sotheby's in London in 1998. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Time and the hour

"Come what come may
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day."

                                                                 Macbeth, I, iii

In his awakening ambition of a kingly crown, Macbeth makes the observation that regardless of what transpires, time will march on. In his medieval world, "the hour" must have seemed a sufficiently minuscule segment of time; there was no one anxious to make the 5:25 to Hoboken.

In Agecroft Hall's collection is the earliest known English lantern clock, dating to Shakespeare's own lifetime. It was made c.1610 by the clockmaker Robert Harvie, who worked in Oxford from 1580-1600 before moving to London. The clock is one of the first shown in George White's masterful work, English Lantern Clocks, widely regarded as the most authoritative volume on the subject.

Made of solid brass, iron, and steel, the clock face has Roman numerals, etched arcade decoration, and but one hand,  to indicate the hour. Engraved on the back is the maker's inscription, "Robertus Harue Littell Brittain London feecit (Littell Brittain refers to a neighborhood of London).

The clock has Doric columns at its corners and is surmounted by a steel bell dome. There are two large and two small lead weights on flax cords, and its pendulum has a brass plate on the end of its steel shaft.  In the 18th century, the clock was converted from balance wheel escapement works to the more accurate pendulum system, and at that time the clock's alarm was discarded.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Royal Shakespeare Company notes Agecroft artifact

We're pleased to see that the Royal Shakespeare Company, in its program notes for a recent performance of The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford-upon-Avon, made mention of Agecroft Hall and its elaborately-carved English oak painted bedstead, made c.1600. The program article, entitled "Come, Kate, We'll to Bed," provides appropriate background for a play that revolves around the battle between the sexes. Written by Dr. Tara Hamling and doctoral researcher Elizabeth Sharrett, both of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, the commentary makes clear that Elizabethans recognized the central role of the bed in life's most significant moments - birth, marriage consumation, death.

"Floral motifs carved or painted on bedsteads to symbolize fertility and fecundity were a permanent version of the flowers scattered on beds on the night of the wedding......One fine example is the painted bedstead now at Agecroft Hall......"

Bedsteads were generally regarded as among a married couple's most significant pieces of furniture, which makes the exceptional craftsmanship that often went into them seem appropriate. The Agecroft bedstead  features a wealth of elaborate carving and a polychromatic paint scheme; the paint is original. Good luck finishing a paint job these days that will last 400 years.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Earl of Eastcheap

Shakespeare's baron of besotted conviviality, Sir John Falstaff, loved his sack (a somewhat sweet, fortified Spanish wine) in astounding quantities, but was never one to turn his back on other forms of liquid refreshment. While reducing the ale supply at the Boar's Head Tavern in London's Eastcheap, Fat Jack might have tilted back a black jack, a one-handled blackened leather liquid-holding vessel, of the sort pictured here.

This early 17th-century English black jack is in the collection of Agecroft Hall, a collection that includes a broad assortment of tableware from the period. The word "jack" was probably an allusion to the "leathern" coats worn by soldiers of the period. The size and amount of liquid a black jack carried varied from a quart to six or more gallons, with the larger ones generally used to carry liquid from the cellar to a table. Those were often referred to as "bombards" because of their resemblance in form to a type of cannon of the period.. The vessels would be lined with resin or pitch to make them waterproof. It's hardly surprising that rowdy, thirsty English soldiers evidently had a hand in naming some of the items on a typical drinking table. Who's going to argue with 'em?

Shakespeare's beloved Falstaff will be showing up at the 2012 Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall, to keep The Merry Wives of Windsor amused. That play is slated to run from July 5th through July 29th. Prior to that production, Cymbeline will be performed from June 7th through July 1st.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

While Hamlet ruminates

So what is a "bodkin," anyway?

If God had not "fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter," depriving Hamlet of the option of killing himself with an unburdened conscience, the Dane might have done the deed with "a bare bodkin."

There is scholarly disagreement over whether the word refers to a small pin or a dagger. While it might be assumed that "dagger" would seem the more appropriate interpretation, many scholars make the powerful argument that Hamlet is ruminating on his ability to kill himself so easily, with something as small and nondescript as a pin.

Displayed here is a photograph of a 17th century English silver bodkin from London that is in Agecroft Hall's collection. It has a spiral twist end terminating in a hand clutching a heart. It has engraved on its side "I.P. - Vertu + Passeth + Riches." Bodkins had a variety of uses, primarily in making holes for cloth or as hairpins, or in this case probably as a gift, a token of affection.  Whether it would have done the job for Hamlet is anyone's guess.

It has occurred to us.......

.....that given Agecroft Hall's role as venue for the annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and given its heritage as an English manor house brought across the Atlantic to grace the banks of Virginia's James River, we thought it might be worthwhile to produce a blog that centers not quite so much on the works of William Shakespeare as on the day-to-day world in which the great poet lived, with artifacts from Agecroft Hall's own collection to lend us some light.