Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects: Number 59, a sweet bag

This next 100 objects post has been written by Stephanie Appleton, doctoral researcher in the history department at the University of Birmingham.

In this quotation from Troilus and Cressida (1601), Thersites unleashes his anger at Patroclus:

Thersites: … Why art thou then exasperate, thou/ idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet/ flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse,/ thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such/ waterflies, diminutives of nature! (5. 1. 29 – 33)

Here Thersites objectifies Patroclus, dehumanising and humiliating him by likening him to a flimsy, showy, frivolous dress accessory of the time: the purse. As such there is irony in his use of the word ‘immaterial’: while its main intention is surely to indicate that he views Patroclus as entirely inconsequential, he chooses to demonstrate this by itemising the characteristics of what is unmistakably a material object, with its tangibility thus reinforcing the slur.

This itemisation of characteristics means that examining Thersites’ account of the purse provides us with a vivid image of what this object might have looked like: the ‘skein of sleave-silk’ and ‘green sarsenet flap’ (sarcenet was a silk like material and so only available to the wealthier citizens of Shakespeare’s England) conjure up an image of an attractive, costly yet delicate item, while ‘the tassel of a prodigal’s purse’ adds further emphasis to its primarily decorative, rather than functional, form.

A late 16th century embroidered silk sweet bag, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.

In fact, this late sixteenth century purse or ‘sweet bag’, from the museum collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, looks remarkably like the sort of thing Shakespeare may have had in mind when writing this speech. This purse is also made of silk (silk satin, precisely) except in this case it is dark pink instead of green. It is embroidered with foliage detail in vibrant yellows and greens, with silver spangles enhancing the border and background, and it too is edged with tassels, two of which are acorn shaped. A long, seven colour plaited drawstring and cord is attached to the top, which perhaps allowed for the bag to be carried around the wrist or hung about the person, for maximum display.

Although this type of purse is commonly referred to as a ‘sweet bag’, this name might be somewhat of a red herring, as it is thought that they had a variety of possible uses. For example, it is known that bags like these were used to hold gifts of money presented to the monarch at New Year, as a kind of early modern gift wrapping. Alternatively they may have held dried herbs and flowers or perfumed powders, ready to be applied to the nose like a pomander to mask any unpleasant odours. Or, a delicate bag like this might even have been given as a token of love during courtship, perhaps containing a smaller, symbolic gift within, like a ring.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.