Early modern theatre-goers themselves were often actively engaged as consumers and producers of knowledge, carrying ‘tables’ with them to jot down notes. Sets of writing tables or tablets were a sixteenth-century technology which provided easily portable, reusable writing surfaces. A stiff material such as wood or ivory was covered with a layer of wax or specially treated vellum, resulting in a surface that could be inscribed, wiped clean, and reused.
Spectators might note down witticisms, anecdotes, and aphorisms, to turn to good account later: William Sly, in the Induction to John Marston’s The Malcontent, has apparently seen the play so often that he has ‘most of the jests here in my table-book’ (Induction, l. 17), while John Fletcher’s prologue to The Custom of the Country denies that there is anything in the play for ‘any man that brings his table-book / To write down what he may repeat / At some great table’, quibbling on the other meaning of ‘table’ (Prologue, l. 4). In some cases, as with the first (‘bad’) quarto of Hamlet, shorthand notes taken in the theatre may even have been used to reconstruct the text of an entire play.
On stage, the scholarly, contemplative Hamlet calls for his tables to set down his observations about the falsity of human nature; and earlier, wants to wipe ‘the table of [his] memory’ clean to make space only for the words of his father’s ghost (I.v.98). In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the villain Iachimo uses one to note down the details of Imogen’s body and bedchamber, to construct evidence to prove her supposed infidelity, while Jupiter descends and leaves a ‘tablet’ on the sleeping Posthumus’ breast, indicating the different forms of textual knowledge that a set of tables could represent (5.4.109).