Internet Shakespeare Editions


Sir John Harington and the water closet

By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

An idea before its time: in 1596, Sir John Harington*, godson of Queen Elizabeth, published a learned, amusing work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.

An explanation

The title is a pun on "a-jacques," or what is still called a "john": Harington proposed a perfectly good model of a flush toilet, as illustrated here, complete with cistern and sewage outflow.

But the connection between sanitation and disease was not well established, and people of the period were not deeply concerned with such niceties; it was not until the nineteenth century that Thomas Crapper gave his name to a more successful model.


  1. A man of many talents

    Harington also published two influential translations: a spirited version of Ariosto's heroic poem, Orlando Furioso (1591), and a medical work, The School of Salerne, The Englishman's Doctor (1607).