Clock tower marking the center of town in Barnstaple, Devon, England, UK.
Image by Deitmar Rabich, 2013, Public Domain. Source

From Falstaff in his flame coloured taffeta being admonished by Henry V for being so superfluous to demand the time of the day, to the Chorus of Romeo and Juliet declaring that what you are about to see is the two hours traffic of their stage, we can see that the concept of time was present in Shakespeare’s plays, from his many references to time and hours, but the availability of devices that allowed Shakespeare to tell the time of the day was very different than today.

Which is why this week, we are asking: Did Shakespeare have a clock? 

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Let’s take a look at time keeping in early modern England. We are going to cover clock towers, sun dials, wrist watches, hourglasses, and mechanical clocks. 

This week, we are starting with the Clock Tower. 

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Clocks Were Originally Bells

Originally, the word “clock” meant “bell” because the churches in a town would ring their bells to mark the time for prayer throughout the day. Townspeople came to use the bells as a marker for various points during the day and to orient themselves as to where in the day they were timewise. 

As these church bells could be heard from very far away, many people used the church bells to orchestrate meetings and to make their arrangements. For example, you might arrange to meet your friend for lunch after the third chiming of the bells.   

When they were using the town clocks to mark the hours, they would mark the tones of the bells and count them to see what hour of the day was being marked. They would count the bells outloud, thus “telling the time” as they listened to the chimes.

You see this tradition show up in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when Iachimo tells the hours by counting “One, two, three.” Act 2 Scene 2


…a long hour by Shrewsbury clock…


Henry IV Part 1, V.4

When Coordinating a Meeting, You Used the Town’s Name

If your friend was coming to meet you from a different town, where the church bells were perhaps not on the same rotation as your town’s bells, then you would set your meeting by announcing the town whose bells from which you would be measuring. 

You can see an example of this tactic for keeping time in Shakespeare’s Henry IV when Falstaff says that he fought a “long hour by Shrewsbury clock” Act 5 Scene 4. He was, of course, tired and stressed out from the events going on in that scene, but the reference to the “long hour” is also a double meaning on the idea that clocks were notoriously slow, producing a “long hour”

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth 
In forty minutes.


Midsummer Night's Dream, II.1

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, water color painting by William Blake (1757-1827) Public Domain. Source

Minutes Were For Fairies

Clocks in general for Shakespeare’s time period were flourishing, with many people making them, imports of them coming from all over Europe to England at this time, but overall they were very inefficient, meaning that clocks were not accurate at all for keeping the precise time.

Fractional hours like half hours and quarter hours existed, but were largely estimates.The concept of minutes would not exist until the 18th century, and in fact, for William Shakespeare, the concept of being able to mark the minutes of an hour was considered impossible–something for the fairies.

As Tiffany Stern points out in her paper, Title,  

Only once does Shakespeare write about a period of time made up of accumulated minutes. Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream claims that he will ‘put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes’ (TLN 552–3). The joke here is that forty minutes is an unmeasurable amount of time. Only a fairy could use it.

Shrewsbury Abbey viewed from Abbey Foregate in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, with it’s clock face prominently displayed on the front. This is the second church I think might be what Falstaff is in reference to inside Henry IV Part 1. Photo by Diliff, 2014, Public Domain. Source

To meet your father and the Scottish power, 
As is appointed us, at Shrewsbury


Henry IV Part 1, III.1

Shrewsbury Abbey

Contender #1 for Falstaff’s Clock in H4

I went looking for the Shrewsbury Clock that Falstaff mentions in H4, and found two clocks I think are the best contenders. 

One is Shrewsbury Abbey, which while present at the time Falstaff’s lines were written, I’m unclear about the history of the Abbey if it was standing or chiming at that time. It went through a rough patch, you might say, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and wasn’t really back in fighting form until the 18th century. I’ve contacted the Abbey to request an interview for the podcast to sort out the history, and whether it could have been them to which Flastaff was referring, and I’ll let you know what comes of that inquiry. 

So hath the business that I come to speak of. 
Lord Mortimer of Scotland hath sent word 
That Douglas and the English rebels met 
The eleventh of this month at Shrewsbury 


Henry IV Part 1, III.2

Known as the “Market Hall Clock Tower” this is Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, near to Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Great Britain. Picture by David Dixon, 2010, Public Domain. This is one of the churches whose clock tower I believe could have been the one to which Falstaff was referring in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 Source.

St. Mary’s the Virgin

Contender #2

The second clock which I think might have been the Shrewsbury Clock of H4, is the clock at St. Mary’s of the Virgin. It’s on my list of two best contenders, because this clock is referred ot in history of Shrewsbury writeups as the Market Hall clock, which means it was the center of trade and commerce, and likely to have been a popular reference point. It was also there in the town when Shakespeare was writing Flastaff’s lines, so it’s my second choice for lieklist clock to be the Shrwsbury clock in reference. 

Now, citizens of Angiers, ope your gates, 
Let in that amity which you have made; 
For at Saint Mary’s chapel presently 
The rites of marriage shall be solemnized. 

King Phillip

King John, II.1

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