Hello there! I’m Cassidy Cash. Here on Did Shakespeare we explore the ordinary life things that show up in Shakespeare’s plays, and examine what they would have been like for William Shakespeare himself by asking good questions, then exploring what we can find out to answer those questions.
This week, we are looking at the ordinary idea that any human being has to go to the bathroom. A brief look at Tudor history will show you regular bathroom items included chamber pots, bath tubs, and sometimes even boilers for heating up hot water. But what about toilets?
To find out exactly what was inside the bard’s restroom, we are asking:
Did Shakespeare Have a Toilet?
The Romans thought of bathroom going as a public affair, building long benches with holes in it where patrons would use the bathroom right next to their buddies and then go about the rest of their day.
By the Middle Ages in England rich people built toilets called ‘garderobes' jutting out of the sides of their castles. A hole in the bottom let everything just drop into a pit or the moat.
As you can imagine, by the time summer came around, the moat smelled horrible.
The smell actually turned out to be useful,however, since the odor drove away moths that would otherwise eat clothing. Therefore, to protext against the ravenous little insects,people started storing their clothes inside the Garderobe to protect them,which is where get the word “Wardrobe” today.
During the life of William Shakespeare, however, not everyone had a castle or a moat, so for those who had only their humble abode, a hole in the ground with a wooden plank stretched across it often did just fine. There’s one example of this kind of toilet at the York Archelogical Trust. It’s literally just a hole and a board. Fancy.
In the 16th century having an actual room for your bathing was extremely rare, despite Henry VIII installing one for himself.
The bucket with a hole in the top approach to using the restroom persisted throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime as the primary way—nobles and the poor alike—used the necessaries.
However, not all the civilized society of England were content with this version of the facilities so in 1596, Sir John Harington, invented a new way when he created the first ever flush toilet. Until John Harington created his flush toilet the bathroom facilities were known as “jakes” which explains why Sir John named his toilet “Ajax” pronounced like “jakes” –as it happens, our modern use of the word “john” to describe the toilet comes from Sir John Harington (and yes, for those of you who are Games of Thrones fans, Kit Harington is supposedly related to John Harington of toilet history fame.)
1590 portrait of Sir John Harington by Heironimo Custodis. This version is a cut-down version of a three-quarter-length (at Ampleforth Abbey as of 1969). Attributed to Custodis (Roy Strong, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture, 1969, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London). Source
It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that a man named unfortunately Thomas Crapper (I promise I am not making this up) would reinvent what’s known as the water closet and really make toilets popular in England but they did exist during Shakespeare’s lifetime. As a small and tangentially related piece of Trivia, in the mid 1960s after Thomas Crapper’s company’s heyday had long passed and the company fell into disuse, it was a historian named Simon Kirby who bought the company and relocated it to none other than Stratford Upon Avon, England.
Perhaps Kirby was impressed by Shakespeare’s potty jokes because toilets, and an entire running joke on them throughout Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, do show up in Shakespeare’s plays.
John Harington wrote an extensive manual on his invention titled ‘A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax', published in 1596. This is the diagram of his flush toilet from that publication. Source
The one and only textual reference to the actual word “jakes” being used to describe a toilet appears in Shakespeare’s King Lear when the Earl of Kent hurls this stinging insult: