1577 (when Shakespeare was 13) painting of lady Arabella Stuart. Unknown author, shows her holding a doll dressed in period clothing. Source

When you think about the life of William Shakespeare, it is easy to think of him in his prime–as a grown man, well established in London, taking the city by storm with his powerful and mesmerizing plays. But even William Shakespeare was once a child, and when he was growing up, what did he use for fun? When I was in Stratford Upon Avon, I picked up this ShakesBear from the gift shop because it is adorable and I had promised my kids a present. While it adorably has an established spot in our lives here for fun today, it got me thinking about what kinds of toys Shakespeare would have used to play with as a kid. Which is why this week, we are asking: Did Shakespeare Have a Stuffed Animal?
There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more.
Philip the Bastard

King John (I.1)

When looking into the history of stuffed animals, it appears that the first stuffed animal, properly called such, was not invented until 1880. Teddy Roosevelt would create the first Teddy Bear, while Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit would become the first stuffed animal to be patented. However, all of these examples come from the 19-20th centuries. Were there not earlier instances of children playing with stuffed animals? 

It would seem that the evidence is conflicted on that point. While we believe kids played with stuffed toys, and particularly rag dolls and corn husk dolls that would sometimes be shaped into animals (think a knight riding on a horse, for example) it was much more common for the toys children played with in Shakespeare’s lifetime to be modeled after people, or after tools used by adults only in small form. 

The origin of the word “toy” is unknown, but is thought to have started before Shakespeare in the 1300s. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are over 30 references to the word “toy” in Shakespeare’s plays, and he uses the word several times to describe a child’s plaything, or something to be easily tossed aside and disregarded. This suggests to me that whether or not Shakespeare had a stuffed animal, it seems he was familiar with toys and not only grew up with them, but probably purchased or made a few for his kids along the way. At least, I would like to think he did.
Mother and child at toy-stall; emblematic print from a series of seventy-six illustrations to Jacob Cats’ ‘Spiegel van den ouden ende nieuwen tijdt…’ (published in four editions between 1632 and 1658); a woman reaching into her purse and smiling at her daughter, who pulls on her skirts and points to a large doll on the counter of a well-stocked street-stall, the woman behind the counter also pointing to the doll, a dog at the girl’s feet, a man and woman seen in the street behind at r; circle in square frame. Engraving. Source
Archaeological sites have found dolls all over the world in Japan, Africa, Europe and other places, and these dolls were carved in the form of people, tools, and animals. In the 15th century and during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most dolls and play toys were made of wood or clay, and possibly wax. 

A woman with her daughter, who is carrying an English “puppet”. Drawn by John White in 1585-1593. Inscribed ‘A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc . / and her daughter of the age of .8. or. / 10. yeares’. Source
From the British Museum: In the caption to his very first image of Virginia, depicting the coastline of Roanoke and the first meeting of the English with the Indians, Harriot recorded: ‘We offred the[m] of our wares, as glasses, kniues, babies, and other trifles, which wee thougt they delighted in’. Explaining the engraving of this image, Harriot wrote that the young girls were ‘greatlye Diligted with puppetts, and babes which wear brought oute of England’. The girl in White’s image shows her mother the ‘babe’ or doll she has been given, a fully dressed doll of an expensive type available only to wealthy English children, not the cheap wooden ‘Bartholomew babe’ or tin variety that most children in London would have had to play with. No doubt the cheaper variety was mainly what was traded but this was the daughter of a chief and her gift would have been of an appropriate status. White used gold and silver on the dress of the doll and it is shown facing the viewer, its status obvious.”
The British museum records in their evaluation of portraits like this one from White in approximately the 1590s, that like most things in society, toys were divided up into class levels. The doll the girl is carrying in the photograph is similar to the kind Arabella Stuart is holding in the unattributed painting of her childhood where she is also holding a doll. 

1577 portrait of Arabella Stuart as a child. Unattributed author. Source

Taking toys to the natives in the New World was a common trade item for English colonists. We have records from John White, who catalogued many journeys from England to North America that dolls, specifically, referred to as “puppets” were sent from England to be gifts for the families with children in the new land. It was part of the plan for brokering peace and finding trade agreements. 

A full description of this image was not provided by the author of the website where this was located. You can see the full source here.

The word “poppet” also likely existed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, having originated from the word “popet” in middle English, which is a diminuitive expression of endearment like “sweetie” or “love” to describe someone. Typically it describes a woman, but it is connected to the concept of a puppet–a stuffed representation of a person. 

Puppets in Shakespeare’s lifetime were hugely popular, appearing at festivals and street markets, the word puppet shows up at least 11 times in Shakespeare’s works.

Poppet was also a term used for a Kitchen Witch, or a stuffed witch kept in the kitchen. She is thought to ward off evil spirits and prevent messes like pots overflowing, roasts burning, and sauces spilling. While modern England mostly has no idea about this tradition, during the Tudor era, and therefore Shakespeare’s lifetime, they were hugely popular. We know about them from sources like

The will of John Crudgington, from Newton, Worfield, Shropshire in England, dated 1599, divides his belongings amongst his wife and three children, “except the cubbard in the halle the witche in the kytchyn which I gyve and bequeathe to Roger my sonne.” (Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen_witch)

So when it comes to poppets, or kitchen witches, even some adults had stuffed dolls!

I found this blog where a lady says her friend owns this doll dated to 1600. It is unclear the source of the doll, or it’s provenance, but she describes it this way:

She [meaning the doll shown above in the side-by-side pictures, which belong to her and not me Source.] is attributed to a daughter of Karl IX, princess Katarina, and may have been made by her, or perhaps just owned. It sems quite likely that she was a fashion doll, made to show of what was fashionable. She is dated to around 1600, which probably made Katarina a bit too old to play with her, as the princess was born in 1584. The doll is also in a very good condition, which makes it a bit unlikely that she was used as a toy. Adorable she is, nevertheless! And my friend Caroline who provided the gorgeous pictures in my last post, has kindly let me use more the following pictures of Pandora as she was unpacked.”

You can read her story, as well as find links to this particular doll’s history on her website. One particularly fascinating bit I discovered was how they use portraits of Elizabethans to compare the hairstyles of the doll to real people. Apparently, the fashion of the time used dolls like this one to establish what something was going to look like before it was created. Then, once the doll was finished with its’ purpose as a professional tailoring tool, would sometimes be given to children as playthings. See the full blog here.

Still want to learn more? Here’s some resources for you: 

For a very detailed look into the history of dolls specifically, as it applies to the Renaissance and 15-16th century, I recommend you check out Joan and Crispin’s website here. They have several references to literature, plays, and wills from the period that provide excellent links to archival and primary sources to consider if you are delving into serious research on the Shakespearean history of toys. Scroll all the way down for a list of their sources, including several excellent books on the topic.

Some sources I used:

Books you might like: 


Shakespeare was a master at zingy one liners, and now you can use his skill with insulting someone to start your own fights at the next dinner part or book club. Grab your list and start insulting your friends the class way—just like William Shakespeare. Use this form to sign up for our weekly email newsletter and download the guide immediately.