Word of the Day: Bell

August 3, 2011 in Word of the Day

Stage effects in Shakespeare’s time were, unsurprisingly, far more limited than they are today. They were also considerably more dangerous: the Globe theatre burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII when the live gunfire used, with great literal-mindedness, to represent real gunfire struck the thatch roof and brought the wooden theatre down in minutes. No-one was hurt, save for an unfortunate sole whose burns would have been far more serious had he not been dowsed in beer by his friends. If someone had been hurt, though, the theatre was well provided to signal injury and danger, possessing as it did that rather less dangerous producer of stage effects, the humble bell. With a strong sense of practicality, bells are everywhere in Shakespeare’s works, used to to set up a variety of atmospheres, with little danger to the “wooden O” of the globe.

From the seventy-two appearances of bells in Shakespeare’s texts, five different uses appear, with much blurring between them. Amongst the most frequent is the bell as the death knell: the priest promises that Ophelia will have “bell and burial” despite her apparent suicide in Hamlet; news of Hotspur’s death at the start of Henry IV part II is compared to the sound of “a sullen bell”, a phrase also used by the Sonnet-writer for his own passing (LXXI); and the song that plays as Bassanio chooses his casket in The Merchant of Venice tolls the beginning and the end of infatuation:

> It is engend’red in the eyes,
> With gazing fed; and fancy dies
> In the cradle where it lies.
> Let us all ring fancy’s knell:
> I’ll begin it.–Ding, dong, bell.

There are many more examples that I leave out here. Macbeth, for example, is full of knells, or, rather, of bells that Macbeth hears as knells: the bells that ring after Duncan’s murder are, for example, “a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell”. Other bells in the play include the “alarum bell”, which also makes its appearance in Othello (when a drunken Cassio kills Roderigo), and in Henry VI part I (when the French prepare their attack), to name but a few examples.

Far from the battlefield or the funeral, bells also serve to mark the time. They ring the hour on the battlements of Elsinore at the start of Hamlet, and mark dinnertime in The Comedy of Errors. In one of Shakespeare’s most touching scenes, an imprisoned and deposed Richard II compares himself to a broken clock, right down to its carillon:

> [...] For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
> My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
> Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
> Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
> Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
> Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
> Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
> Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
> Show minutes, times, and hours [...]

My last few examples concern other bells: the head of a flower can be called a bell (as Ariel’s bower in “a cowslip’s bell” attests), and the ram that leads a flock a “bell-wether”, after the bell he carries on his neck (thus Touchstone calls a shepherd “a bawd to a bell-wether” in As You Like It, for example).

Having run from burning theatres to animal husbandry, I conclude with one last quote involving bells, this time from King John, which I shall explain in my next piece.

> BASTARD Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
> When gold and silver becks me to come on. [...]

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