Word of the Day: Pawn

January 27, 2012 in Word of the Day

Everyone knows that this word refers to the most insignificant piece on the chessboard, and from this, it is tempting to understand Kent’s use of the word in his pledge of loyalty to an irate King Lear in a particular way:

KENT My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

The tempting paraphrase of this, and the one given in the No Fear Shakespeare (and in many translations), is “I never considered my life as anything more than a chess pawn for you to play off against your enemies”. This is, however, quite likely to be wrong. The word ‘pawn’ never refers to a chess piece in any of Shakespeare’s twenty-eight other uses of the word. Instead, it often appears as a verb, and often in close proximity to the word “honour”.

There are several other meanings of the word pawn in the OED. The chess term, going back to 1400 and the Anglo-Norman for foot-soldier (paun), is the first; but the sense that interests me here, and the sense that Shakespeare uses widely, is the third, from the Middle French pant:

The state or condition of being given or held as a pledge, or as security for the repayment of a loan; chiefly in at pawn, in pawn, †to pawn, etc. Also fig.

This is quite clearly what the Hostess of King Henry IV part II is talking about when she complains that Falstaff has been running up a tab of such proportions that she will have to “pawn both my plate and the tapestry of my dining-chambers”, even though she eventually softens up and serves him, regardless of the fact that she might have to “pawn [her] gown” to pay for it.

Returning to questions of honour, and loftier characters than the Hostess, the word “pawn” as noun or verb is everywhere: Tarquin is described “Pawning his honour to obtain his lust” in The Rape of Lucrece; the history plays are full of challenges in which the throwing of the guantlet is accompanied by the words “There is my honour’s pawn”; an Old Athenian begs for Timon’s approbation with the words “Pawn me to this your honour”; and Imogen, agreeing to keep a chest of jewels in her bedchamber (with – unbeknownst to her Iachimo – hidden inside), says, with some dramatic irony, that she will “pawn my honour for their safety”.

All this and more suggests that the correct reading of those lines from King Lear has nothing to do with chess. Rather,

KENT My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

Means: ‘I considered my life as something to be pawned, to be pledged on my honour, in order to secure thy safety’. The word “wage”, which might mislead here by evoking the language of combat too strongly, nevertheless means also, to quote the OED once more, “To deposit or give as a pledge or security”. Kent’s life is no chess piece, but rather something with a clear value in terms of both his own sense of honour and his service to Lear.

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