Word of the Day: Drawer

June 17, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

This word, used twenty-two times (including the stage directions) in Shakespeare’s works, does not refer to a piece of furniture, but rather a profession. You would, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, find drawers in a tavern, drawing. Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, puns on the many meanings of the verb.

MERCUTIO Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says ‘God send me no need of thee!’ and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

The ‘drawer’, of course, refers to the barman, the ‘tapster’, who – as the OED puts it – “draws liquor for customers”. Mercutio’s banter with Benvolio puns on the differing situations of drawing a sword and drawing a pint: strangely, his is the only use of the word that does not occur in a scene with Falstaff, another character very able to distinguish between swords and beverages. That said, it is not Falstaff who speaks about drawers in these scenes, but rather his royal companion, Prince Hal.

PRINCE. I have sounded the very base-string of humility. Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers; and can call them all by their Christian names, as, Tom, Dick, and Francis. They take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy; and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy,–by the Lord, so they call me;–and, when I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.

For Hal, the drawer is more than an unremarkable figure useful for a pun but nor more like he is for Mercutio. Instead, the drawer represents another world, that the young prince enters into with both a wry smile and an eye on his future role as king. This speech occurs early in Henry IV Part I, and is paralleled by another episode in Part II where Hal and Poins disguise themselves as Drawers to trick Falstaff. This comic venture then becomes more serious when Hal becomes King Henry and, on the eve of Agincourt, once more alters his dress and blends in with the common people, culminating with his dawn meditation on “ceremony”. That great speech has its roots here in the tavern, where the prince’s fascination with the many echelons of society, the trappings of a profession and the “Tom, Dick and Francis” beneath them, begins with “a leash of drawers”.

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