I was reading Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, when I encountered the following lines:

.....what might you,
Or my dear majesty your queen here, think,
If I had play'd the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb....

Now, this site glosses this as:

if I had shown myself of no more intelligence than a desk or memorandum-book (which have secrets committed to their keeping, but no power to take any action regarding those secrets).

My question is how can a "desk" be a secret keeper?


1 Answer 1


Shakespeare uses the word "desk" in two plays: Hamlet, Act II, scene 2 (cited in the question) and The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, scene 1, where Antipholus of Ephesus says (emphasis added),

To Adriana, villain, hie thee straight:
Give her this key, and tell her, in the desk
That's cover'd o'er with Turkish tapestry,
There is a purse of ducats; let her send it:

This suggests that "desk" refers to a type of furniture where you can store things and that you can lock with a key. Because of this, it can also be used for storing things that the owner wants to keep secret.

There are several such "desks" in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. For example, an oak desk from around 1600, an inlaid table desk from the years 1580-1620 and the Duke of Urbino Writing Desk from around 1600.

Wikimedia has the following image of Henry VIII's writing box:

wooden box in walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk velvet, shown opened so one can see its subdivisions and small drawers

In the cited passage from Hamlet, Polonius asks Claudius what he (the king) might have thought of him if he had kept his knowledge about Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship to himself (instead of telling Ophelia she should avoid prince Hamlet).

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