Word of the Day: Tennis

June 22, 2010 in Word of the Day

Wimbledon has begun, and I have fulfilled my promise of typing ‘Tennis’ into the dialogue box of the Open Shakespeare website as the prelude to another wander through the works of Mr William Shakespeare. Six examples come out, some from famous scenes, some less so. It would be hard, for example, to find a more important set of tennis balls than those sent by the Dauphin (the French heir to the throne) as an insult to Henry V. After taking one look at this desultory “treasure”, King Henry launches into an announcement that would be delightfully witty, were it not also a declaration of war:

HENRY V When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard…

The puns of this passage, on “racket” (the tool of tennis players, an uproar, and, perhaps even a type of catapult) and on “hazard”, suggest what remains constant between Early Modern tennis and our own version of the sport. However, historians quibble and call the earlier version of the sport, ‘real tennis’, since it was distinguished by always being played in a room off whose walls the ball was allowed to bounce. Maybe something of this is behind Pericles’ metaphor, in the play that bears his name:

PERICLES A man whom both the waters and the wind,
In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him;
He asks of you, that never used to beg…

Rather like a more tragic Dromio (kicked about, you will recall, like a football), Pericles spends this play wandering, and Shakespeare uses the sporting metaphor to capture the apparently equal senses of futility and of divine order inherent in a romance. Something similar, if darker, is going on when Gloucester, in King Lear, laments that “Like flies to want boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport“. The link with ‘real tennis’ behind Pericles’ words is simply that “the vast tennis court” is at once an unlimited space in which the Greek Lord is helpless, whilst at the same time being a defined space in which certain rules are in effect, just as one may play at tennis, but only in a specific arena.

Of course, as with football, the game of tennis does not always stay within neat bounds. The remaining passages from Shakespeare show off the less salubrious side of the sport: Polonius imagines gentlemen “falling out at tennis”, whilst Hal mocks Falstaff’s off-white shirt with comparison to those of foppish tennis players. Even if there is a similar disorderliness about tennis as we find with football, one distinction is still clear: tennis is a noble’s game, its indecorum taking place among the decorous, and, after all, played by Henry VIII.

There is one quotation left, which I admit to have been saving since it my favourite oddity of the old game of tennis, that its balls were stuffed with human hair. Thus Claudio describes the loss of Benedick’s beard in the following terms:

CLAUDIO No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him; and the old
ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls.

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