Word of the Day: Bagpipes

May 20, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Bagpipes are, for Shakespeare, an instrument that inspires emotion. Falstaff, in the first of my three passages, mentions the instrument in the midst of some tavern banter with young Prince Hal:

FALSTAFF … ‘Sblood, I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.
PRINCE HENRY Or an old lion, or a lover’s lute.
FALSTAFF Yea, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe.

For the curious, a Lincolnshire bagpipe – no pictures of which exist in the public domain – consists of only a single “drone” (or pipe) along with the usual mouthpiece and bag. It has a rather mixed reputation: Samuel Pepys wrote in 1667 that Lincolnshire bagpipes made “barbarous music”, whilst a linguist noted in 1875 that “Licolnshire bagpipes” was a colloquialism for the croaking of frogs. The instrument may indeed have been associated with melancholia, but such a range of other opinions suggests that Falstaff’s line, rather like Falstaff himself, has a few playful ambiguities to it.

The music of bagpipes does not fare too well in my second example either. Autolycus’s music is described by a servant as so delightful that after having heard it “the bagpipe could not move you”. Again, here, the emotional properties of bagpipes are alluded to, but immediately dismissed from the pastoral world of Bohemia, a land which, unlike Perdita’s homeland, does not know such grim emotion.

I will conclude with perhaps the most curious mention of bagpipes of them all. Shylock is better known for his melancholic and brooding speeches than for his humour; yet it is he who turns the equally melancholy bagpipe to surreal comic effect. The intent of his speech – to demonstrate at Antonio’s trial that his lethal demand for a pound of flesh is based upon a fixed and inalterable humour – is deadly serious, yet one cannot help but awkwardly smile at his choice of illustration.

SHYLOCK … Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose,
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now, for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be render’d,
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;
Why he, a harmless necessary cat;
Why he, a wauling bagpipe; but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended;
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

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