The Table of My Memory

When the Ghost of Hamlet’s father demands that his son remember him, Hamlet replies

      Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter.  (1.4.99-105)

While at the Folger Shakespeare Library in December, I held a “writing table,”  the vehicle of Hamlet’s metaphor: a 1580, leather-bound, erasable book with a copper stylus as the functioning clasp:

Folger Shakespeare Library, c. 1580, photos by Sarah HIginbotham

When the stylus is removed, the book can be opened to reveal erasable pages for note-taking:


Notes were later transcribed into commonplace books under subheadings, according to their category. Heather Wolfe et al trace the history of writing tables in this article. 

The pages could be erased for repeated use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on. Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.