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Shakespeare Connected - ‘The natural gates and alleys of the body’ (Hamlet, 1.5.67): Physicality, Hygiene and Bodily Waste in Shakespeare’s World

Folding penknife

The object takes its name from its use in maintaining the writer’s nib, sharpening and splitting the quill so it retained ink. Shakespeare would have had a knife like this on his desk as he drafted his plays, letters and papers. Falstaff remarks on how skinny one of his soldiers appears: the ‘foeman may with as great aim level at the edge of a penknife’ (Henry IV Part 2, 3.2.263).

Knives like these were also used to open veins to reduce an excess of blood (known technically as a ‘Plethora’). So a simple writing instrument may have taken on a life-saving role.


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