These lines from the plays and poems of William Shakespeare are just a few of many that reflect his awareness and extensive poetic use of gemstones.
In his 37 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare uses the terms “crown,” “ring,” and “bracelet” (which one assumes are set with gemstones) some 400 times, and “precious stone” and “jewel” around 300 times. He also mentions specific gemstones and gem materials more than 100 times.
In Shakespeare’s writing, gemstones and jewelry served as metaphors for wealth and beauty and as words that evoke images and elicit emotions. If the frequency of usage is any indication of Shakespeare’s personal gemstone preferences, he was most enamored of pearls, which he mentions 43 times, followed by diamonds at 22 times.
Shakespeare also refers to ruby, agate, amber, jet, carbuncle, emerald, turquoise, opal, rock crystal, sapphire, and chrysolite, most of which were popular gemstones and gem materials during England’s Elizabethan Era when Shakespeare did most of his writing. Examining the sources, value, and importance of these gemstones is a window into life during Elizabethan times.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, a village 90 miles northwest of London. While in his 20s, he became an actor, writer, and part-owner of an acting company; he went on to produce most of his work between 1589 and 1613. Although not widely acclaimed at the time of his death in 1616, he is today recognized as arguably the greatest writer in the English language.
The Elizabethan Era, which coincides with the 1558-1603 reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is considered England’s “golden age.” It marked a renaissance in art, music, theatre, and literature and was a time when many English citizens were intrigued by gemstones. The concept that gemstones set into royal crowns and scepters signified wealth, power, and authority was well-established in England by 1000 CE.
Queen Elizabeth I’s father, King Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, had a particular fondness for gemstones; his seven-pound, golden crown was studded with 344 gems and pearls. His daughter was equally fond of gemstones and gem-studded jewelry.
The Elizabethan Era was part of the long transition period between medieval beliefs and the age of science, and its perception of gemstones was rather complex. Then as now, gemstones were statements of fashion and wealth. But in Shakespeare’s time, with mass education far in the future and illiteracy the norm, gemstones were also closely linked with medicine, folklore, and religion. And with science only in its rudimentary stages, belief in gem-related miracles and superstitions was common.
It is unknown whether Shakespeare personally possessed any of the gemstones about which he wrote. But he certainly saw many fine gems in pageants and processions during the years he lived and worked in London. His acting company also performed at royal functions where elite attendees were well-adorned with costly gems and jewelry.
Shakespeare writes most often of pearls, which were hugely popular in Elizabethan England and the favorite of Elizabeth I. Shakespeare frequently associates pearls with dewdrops and tears, as in Richard II when he writes: “The liquid drops of tears that you have shed/ Shall come again transformed to orient pearl.” The term “orient pearl” referred to an especially fine pearl from the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, or the coast of India. Shakespeare seems aware of these sources, for in Troylus and Cressida, he writes: “Her bed is in India, and there she lies, a pearl.” Today, the term “orient” refers to the luster and color of a quality pearl.
Troylus and Cressida also provides an example of Shakespeare’s metaphoric use of pearls: “She is a pearl whose price has launched o’er a thousand ships.”
Elizabethan royalty wore pearls as jewelry and also as decorations on cloaks and robes. In Henry V, Shakespeare describes one such garment as “an intertissued robe of gold and pearl.” In royal portraits of Elizabeth I, her gowns are often studded with hundreds of pearls.
While the best pearls then came from the “Orient,” many of those available in Elizabethan England were freshwater pearls of somewhat lesser quality from the rivers of Scotland.
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