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Shakespeare uses the word “spectacles” 8 times across his works, and talks about glass eyes in King Lear. In A Winter’s Tale Leontes is talking with Camillo when he indicates Camillo should have seen something clearly because of the thickness of his eye glass. It makes sense to think that people in the 16-17th century would have suffered from near sighted ness or farsighted ness and other ophthalmological disorders, but what does the historical record show about how these sight related issues were dealt with in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Were there glasses that people wore on their face, and if so, who was making them, and out of what? To help us explore the history of eye glasses, spectacles, and the science of improving your vision forShakespeare’s lifetime, we are talking today with Dr. Neil Handley who is not only a historian of eye ware specifically, but serves as Curator of the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists in London.

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Please note that the transcript is auto-generated during our recording session. Some edits have been made to remove any major hiccups, but you may still find some spelling errors where the auto-generation software was confused by our accents.


Dr Neil Handley is a scientific and medical historian who has been the Curator of the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists in London, UK, for the past 25 years. He is also the Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society, a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, an editorial adviser to the journal ‘Ophthalmic Antiques’ and author of the book ‘Cult Eyewear’ (Merrell, 2011). He is a Past-Chairman of the London Museums of Health and Medicine and Past-President of the Ocular Heritage Society of America

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I’ll be asking Neil Handley about:

  • What is the difference in mechanism or components at this time between things like spectacles versus the lenses for a telescope?
  • Let’s talk about what kinds of lenses were available for vision. Did things like monocles or binoculars exist in this time period? And one kind of glass Shakespeare mentions in his works is called a “burning glass”–is that related to glasses for vision?
  • Were glasses that you wear on your face to correct poor vision designed differently than a magnifying glass?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Neil Handley recommends:

Through the Looking Glasses (2021) by Travis Elborough

Spectacles and Other Vision Aids, A History and Guide to Collecting (1996) by the late J. William Rosenthal 

The Long Route to the Invention of the Telescope by the Swiss scientist Ralf Willach

Additional information on specific people in this time period. Neil sent these over for you, and thought anyone interested in this topic might appreciate the extra information. Some of these are mentioned in our show today:

Georg Bartisch (1535-1606)

A German barber and surgeon, Bartisch served a three year apprenticeship in surgery and lithotomy. He was an itinerant oculist and surgeon through Saxony, Silesia and Bohemia, was the first to practice the extirpation of the Bulbus and invented several new surgical instruments as well as publishing the first ophthalmology book written in the vernacular.


Ophthalmodouleia, das ist die Augendienst. Newer und wolgegruendeter Bericht von ursachen und erkentnues aller Gebrechen, Schaeden und maengel der Augen und des Gesichtes.

M. Stoeckel, Dresden, 1583. 273p ill.

Fine example of anatomical illustrations, including layered diagrams. The first scholarly work on ocular disease, beginning with the anatomy of the head and eye and progressing to more specific treatments for strabismus, cataracts (distinguishing between 6 different types), trachoma, external growths on the lids, injuries and foreign bodies. Bartisch prided himself on his surgical skills, but also advocated the use  of a variety of questionable drugs. The author warns readers against depending on artificial aids like spectacles which he regarded as serving little useful purpose. Bartisch believed in prevention rather than cure and  stressed the importance of a healthy diet and care of the mouth, teeth and skin – a holistic approach that was considerably ahead of his time.

Walter BAYLEY (1529-1592-3?) also spelled Bailie, Baley, Bailey and Baily

Educated at the University of Oxford where he became Professor of  Medicine in 1561. He was physician to Queen Elizabeth I.

A briefe treatise touching the preservation of the eie-sight consisting partly in good order of diet, and partly in  use of medicines. 6th edition

Joseph Barnes, Oxford. 1602.  25p.

Some historians suggest that the first edition of this work (1586) was the first English vernacular work on ophthalmology printed in England.

This post expands! There’s more details inside. Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Picture of a Reading stone
  • 13th C painting of a man with spectacles
  • 17thC depiction of the first telescope
  • Leonardo DaVinci’s drawing of refraction
  • 15thC German painting of a man with nose spectacles
  • 15thC painting of a man holding glasses to his face to read
  • Images provided by Neil from the College of Optometrists
  • Full painting of the “Glasses Apostle” portrait
  • 13thC drawing of light being refracted through water
  • 15thC portrait of a man wearing nose glasses
  • 16thC portrait of a military campaign where one of the sailors is wearing glasses
  • 1599 portrait of man wearing nose spectacles
  • 1600 painting showing glasses with temples passing over and around the ears
  • archival images of the first telescope
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