Have you ever wondered what one of the most famous writers of all time used to write his plays with? Shakespeare crafted words that would be alive hundreds of years after his death, but what did he write with?
It is not known exactly what writing instrument Shakespeare would have used, either when drafting his plays or when writing them in full. Certainly, pens, as we have them today, didn’t exist, and it is likely that he used some form of a quill, but there is no certainty about this.
It’s always fascinating to learn more about the people who have come before us, and if you’re wondering what sort of writing instrument Shakespeare would have used, you aren’t alone – so let’s explore this in more detail.
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Did Shakespeare Use A Quill?
We don’t know for sure whether Shakespeare would have used a quill or not, but it seems likely, given that few other pens existed and printing was fairly uncommon at the time. None of his original writing survives, bar a few official documents bearing his signature, so there is no knowing for sure whether he wrote in ink or graphite.
If Shakespeare wrote in ink, the quill is the most likely tool, and quills were popular because:
- Feathers were readily available (they could be plucked from a bird destined for the cooking pot)
- They are reasonably easy to write with when working on parchment
- The points can be sharpened to create a very fine tip
- They can be disposed of when broken
Quill pens were one of the best and only writing tools at this time; although other tools had existed, such as the reed pen, these had mostly fallen out of use by Shakespeare’s day. The quill was simply a better tool. However, there is no guarantee that Shakespeare wrote with a quill, even if it does seem likely.
It is possible that Shakespeare wrote some or all of his plays in graphite, and used ink only for final drafting. He may also have used a mixture of the two, depending on his purpose and the available supplies.
How Is A Quill Made?
A quill is made by taking the flight feather of a large bird, such as a swan or a goose. Goose feathers were more commonly used, but some people did write with swan feathers too, including Queen Elizabeth I.
The tip of the feather is cut away to create a fine point, which is the contact point with the paper, and an arc is hollowed out behind. This allows ink to be soaked into the hollow tube of the feather, where it can then run down to the tip as the user writes. A slit would be cut into the tip to ensure that the ink ran into the point and onto the paper.
However, most quills were made using a more complex process, whereby the feather was cured using hot sand or another substance to make it more flexible. This would make the quill more durable and ensure that it withstood long hours of writing without needing to be sharpened. Special knives were used for sharpening quills.
You can learn a bit more about how quill pens were made using feathers in this video How To Make A Feather Quill Pen. It’s worth noting that many of today’s quill pens are much showier than the quills that were likely used at the time when Shakespeare was writing his plays.
Why Is Shakespeare Shown Holding A Quill?
You may have seen many portraits of Shakespeare holding a quill, poised to write, and if you have watched any films or documentaries about him, you’ve likely seen the quill making an appearance in his hand or on his desk. You might be wondering why if we don’t know for sure that this is what Shakespeare used for writing.
The answer is that the quill is shown because it’s our best guess at what Shakespeare would have used. We may not know because there is no written record, but it seems highly likely since he wrote by hand and there were few other writing instruments.
Did Shakespeare Use Pencils?
It is possible that Shakespeare also used pencils to transcribe his work. We have no way of knowing for sure, but he may have made corrections or even written in pencil at times. It is thought that graphite was discovered in the UK around the time that Shakespeare was born.
A large graphite deposit was found in Borrowdale, and after this, pencils became more popular, because they were capable of making darker marks than the lead versions. It is quite likely that Shakespeare would have used pencils at least some of the time if he had access to them, but a quill pen and ink might have been a more accessible tool.
Various sources dispute the likelihood of Shakespeare having used a pencil; some say that other playwrights at the time were certainly using them so Shakespeare probably did too, while others claim that he only wrote in ink. Unfortunately, there is little evidence on either side, since none of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts have survived.
It is however likely that his plays were written in ink at least when they reached the final draft stage, to increase the permanence and official nature of the document.
Were Shakespeare’s Plays Printed?
Although some of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime, not many were. The first was thought to be Titus Andronicus, which was printed in 1594 (Shakespeare died in 1616) and it did not have his name on it.
His name first appeared on the title page of a printed copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598, and it is believed that Shakespeare was not interested in getting his plays printed.
It is very likely that Shakespeare used a quill at least most of the time. He would not have had access to modern pens, and a quill was the most popular writing instrument at the time. He may also have used a pencil for some of his work.