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Word of the Day: Machiavel

James Harriman-Smith - June 1, 2012 in Word of the Day

There are, according to various counts, approximately four hundred references to Niccolò Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature. Three of them are in plays of Shakespeare; what is interesting is that two of the three are from the lips of Shakespeare’s greatest Machiavel, Richard III (when he was still Duke of Gloucester):

Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives. (Henry VI, Part I)


I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (Henry VI, Part III)

The third reference is by the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”

Shakespeare’s image of the Machiavel as (to use his adjectives) “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” was standard-issue Elizabethan. Machiavelli himself was believed to be “a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago” (Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli).

In Richard III not only other characters see Richard as a devil figure (e.g., Lady Anne calls him “minister of hell”, and cacodemon), but Richard himself identifies with the great dissembler: I will, he says, “seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

At least one great contemporary of Shakespeare – Sir Francis Bacon – did not view Machiavelli as a promoter of the Machiavel, but as a describer of evil:

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil.

But Sir Francis wasn’t a dramatist, and as the American playwright Jean Kerr observed: “The snake has all the lines.” So if Machiavelli hadn’t existed, playwrights would have invented him.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

Word of the Day: Sword

James Harriman-Smith - May 27, 2012 in Word of the Day

Henry V, Act II, Scene 1:  

NYM You’ll pay me the eight shillings I won of you at betting?
PISTOL Base is the slave that pays.
NYM That now I will have: that’s the humour of it.
PISTOL As manhood shall compound: push home.

They draw

BARDOLPH By this sword, he that makes the first thrust, I’ll kill him; by this sword, I will.
PISTOL Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.

  The terse Nym confronts Pistol about a gambling debt, which the latter defiantly refuses to settle. But Pistol is the consummate bragging coward and finds his excuse to back down when Bardolph intervenes. But how does Pistol manage to back down while trying to save face? He exclaims, “Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.” Bardolph, having drawn his weapon, has cried, “By this sword . . . by this sword . . . .”   But how is Bardolph’s weapon an oath? Answer: it isn’t. What the coward Pistol has done is to pretend that Bardolph has sworn by “’sword”—a contraction of “His [i.e., Christ’s] word” (equivalent to the many other minced oaths, like “‘sblood,” “’swounds,” and so forth). And thus he can stand down from his confrontation with Nym.   A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play in which Shakespeare uses rhyme a lot, gives evidence that “sword” and “word” were rhyming words (Act II, Scene 2 and Act V, Scene 1). In the former scene Shakespeare also rhymes “word” with “lord.”   Two conclusions about pronunciation:

  1. The vowel sound in “word” has moved more from its Early Modern English pronunciation than that of “sword” and “lord.”
  2. The “w” sound in “sword” had not been completely lost at that date.

Extraneous observation:

  • Kenneth Branagh in his film version of Henry V leaves this exchange out; maybe he didn’t understand it.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

Word of the Day: Flesh

James Harriman-Smith - May 18, 2012 in Word of the Day

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

says Hamlet in soliloquy at I.ii, unknowingly anticipating the sight of his dead, and now ghostly, father. As the framework of mortality, ‘flesh‘ in Hamlet is also a primary constraint on freedom and a source of anguish.

For the term not only denotes “the mortal frame” (the means of living), but also the sharing of kinship—as is still the case in Christian marriage customs wherein husband and wife are ‘one flesh’, family. Shakespeare uses “flesh” in this sense almost more often than he uses it to mean the meat of the body. See, for example, The Winter’s Tale:

CLOWN She being none of your flesh and blood, your flesh and blood has not offended the king

“That this too too solid flesh would melt” for Hamlet carries a double burden—not only wishing to die (“self- slaughter”), he also wants to be exempt from the familial bonds with his adulterous mother and murderous father-in-law (now also his “solid [sullied] flesh”). The ghost’s immateriality, its anti-flesh quality (it is the same as a human except in those human qualities which are contingent on flesh-having) changes him entirely into an information-giving device; the ghost is practically shareware. But it also makes him a sort of qualitative opposite to Claudius; for while he has been removed from flesh, Claudius has been added to it: to Gertrude’s and, by extension, to Hamlet’s. And the ghost’s function in the play is, indeed, to provide Hamlet the information that will start the plot and pit him against his mother and father. Whether Hamlet imagines the ghost to justify his already extant disgust for the marriage, is another question. As the ghost says,

But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.–List, list, O, list!–

The merits of a continuing flesh are a matter for debate. Hamlet appears to believe there is no reason of self-interest for remaining in his mortal frame, but finds (in that famous “to be or not to be” speech) that apprehension of “what dreams may come” afterwards “must give us pause”; as much pause, perhaps, as the immaterial ghost?

Contributed by Luke McMullan

Word of the Day: Kibes

James Harriman-Smith - May 4, 2012 in Word of the Day

The source of this word is – most likely – Welsh, where cibi or cibwst means exactly the same thing as Shakespeare’s four “kibes”. That meaning evidently has something to do with feet, as the Fool poses Lear the curious question, “If a man’s brains were in’s heels, were’t not in danger of kibes?” Lear’s “Ay, boy” suggests that he agrees with this. It is not until we look in The Tempest, though, that we can get a clearer picture of this phenomenon, when Antonio offers both podiatric advice and a defence of his guiltless coup against Prospero:

SEBASTIAN. I remember
You did supplant your brother Prospero.

And look how well my garments sit upon me;
Much feater than before; my brother’s servants
Were then my fellows; now they are my men.

SEBASTIAN. But, for your conscience,–

ANTONIO. Ay, sir; where lies that? If ’twere a kibe,
‘Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not
This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences
That stand ‘twixt me and Milan, candied be they
And melt ere they molest!

Kibes here, although used metaphorically to illustrate the absent pangs of Antonio’s conscience, obviously suggest something uncomfortable or painful to do with feet, making walking best performed in slippers. The OED confirms this with the meaning of “a chapped or ulcerated chilblain, especially on the heel”, and its entry suggests also that this may be something of a vulgar word, given that it can also be used for damage to the hooves of sheep and horses.

Two occurrances of the word remain in Shakespeare’s opus. Pistol shows absolutely no sympathy for Falstaff’s being “almost out at heels” but rather tells him “Why, then, let kibes ensue”. Similarly, Hamlet picks up on the vulgarity of “kibes” when he remarks to Horatio that “these three years I have taken note of it, the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe”, where to “gall a kibe” means something like to tread on someone’s toes (or rather, ‘ulcerated chilblains’), and thus the larger metaphor describes the Prince’s distaste for either social climbers or – more probably – the debased Danish nobility.

To conclude this foray into Shakespeare’s boots, I’d like to point out that there is a great and longstanding relation between tragedy and feet. It begins with Oedipus, of course, and pops up again with Philoctetes. Perhaps the Bard knew this, and so, by having characters high and low complain about their kibes, further inscribed himself in the Greek classical tradition. After all, what could be a more bathetic hamartia than a blister?

Word of the Day: Ragamuffin

James Harriman-Smith - March 30, 2012 in Word of the Day

We are near the end of Henry IV part I, on the battlefield not far from Shrewsbury. King Henry’s army is locked in bloody combat with the rebel forces, led by Douglas and Hotspur. Completely out of place, and having no truck with any idea of military honour, Falstaff surveys the corpses around him.

FALSTAFF Though I could ‘scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here; here’s no scoring but upon the pate.–Soft! who are you? Sir Walter Blunt: there’s honour for you! here’s no vanity! I am as hot as molten lead, and as heavy too: God keep lead out of me! I need no more weight than mine own bowels. I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered: there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life. But who comes here?

This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word “ragamuffins”, describing the rag-tag band of conscripts and volunteers that Falstaff has led to their deaths before the enemy bullets, the “lead” and “shot” mentioned here, the latter also meaning a reckoning or shopkeeper’s bill.

As for ‘ragamuffin’, the word first appears as the name of a demon in Langland’s Piers Plowman (1387), and then is attested frequently from 1586 on as a term for a “person [...] of a ragged, dirty and (frequently) disreputable appearance.” (OED). The origin of the term is obscure: the ‘raga-’ prefix is clearly descended from ‘ragged’ and ‘raggy’, both of which were used for the devil as well as for disorderly appearance; the ‘muffin’, however, is a bit trickier. One authority holds that it comes from a Middle French word for devil, another from an Anglo-Norman term for a demon (the ‘mal-felon’, which gives ‘maffelon’ and then ‘muffin’…

A final possibility, especially given Falstaff’s habitual references to food and inns earlier in the passage, is that ragamuffin is itself meant with a punning etymology here: these ragged, dead soldiers have after all been thoroughly seasoned with bullets, just as one would “pepper” an Elizabethan loaf or ‘muffin’. Such an idea, the combination of death and eating, is found elsewhere in Shakespeare, Hamlet himself telling King Claudius that the murdered Polonius is “at supper”, just “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”…

Word of the Day: Canker

James Harriman-Smith - March 23, 2012 in Word of the Day

Canker comes to us from the classical Latin ‘cancer’, meaning the sign of the zodiac, an actual crab, and anything from a whole range of tumours, abscesses, sores and even worms. According to Paulus Aeginata’s Epitomae Medicomae, the overlap between crabs and tumours in the word ‘cancer’ arises from the apparent resemblance between the swollen veins around a tumour and the limbs of a crab. This seventh-century a.d. hypothesis being the only available explanation for the link between crustaceans and carcinoma, the OED cites it.

Jumping forward to Shakespeare’s time, and the playwright’s twenty ‘cankers’ cover almost all the various meanings of the word, save that of ‘crab’. First, and most simply, a ‘canker’ is a tumour, of the kind that a misanthropic Timon wishes would “gnaw” the heart of Alcibiades. Second, a ‘canker’ is another word for the damage caused by oxidation, as is clear from the way Venus concludes a speech designed to entice Adonis into her arms: “Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets, / But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.”

By far the most frequent use of canker in Shakespeare’s works, however, is in relation to its botanical meaning. A ‘canker’ is either a type of wild rose (for Hotspur, Bolingbroke is a “canker” next to the “lovely rose” that was Richard II; and Much Ado’s Don John would “rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the] grace” of his brother, Prince of Arragon) or a ‘cankerworm’. This ‘cankerworm’ is a type of insect that attacks the fragile buds and flowers of plants: Blake reuses the motif in his ‘The Sick Rose’ (1794), and Shakespeare has no less than six clear references to this worm. Titania orders her fairies to hunt “cankers in the musk-rose buds” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Proteus and Valentine bandy talk of “cankers” in “the sweetest bud” between them at the start of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the famous rose-picking scene of Henry VI part I would not be complete without the future Richard III asking Somerset if his white rose “Hast not […] a canker”.

Beyond all these specific uses of the word, each more or less metaphorical or allegorical, Shakespeare makes ‘canker’ his own in two other distinctive ways, both rich with insight into the thoughts of his characters. It becomes, for example, part of a compound adjective, as in Edgar’s pithy and bitter summary of his ordeals at the end of King Lear: “Know my name is lost; / By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit.” In this transformation, we leave the original cankerworm far behind. Similarly, Prospero concentrates all his disdain for Caliban into the word ‘canker’, turning it into a verb in the process, to describe “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; / And as with age his uglier body grows, / So his mind cankers.”

Word of the Day: Varlet

James Harriman-Smith - March 2, 2012 in Word of the Day

“A good varlet, a good varlet, a very good varlet”, says Shallow of his servant, after having drunk a few too many glasses of “sack” (wine). The question is, though, is the inebriated rustic being decorous or insulting? To judge by some of Shakespeare’s twenty-one other uses of the word “varlet”, it seems pretty likely to be an insult. An irate (and malapropism-prone) constable Elbow turns, for example, on an aspersion-casting Pompey with the words “Varlet, thou liest; thou liest, wicked varlet: the time is yet to come that [my wife] was ever respected with man, woman, or child.” And King Lear, as well as Measure for Measure is also rich in varlets, with Kent calling Oswald a “brazen-faced Varlet”, and Lear repeating the insult a few scenes later.

If there were a prize for ‘varletry’, however, it would have to go to Troilus and Cressida. Thersites calls Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus a “male varlet”, Troilus asks for his “varlet” to help him unarm, and Thersites, again, this time surveying all the Greek and Trojan heroes, sums the lot up as a “bunch of incontinent varlets”. This great variety allows us to see the various senses of the word a little more clearly, and, hence, resolve the Shallow conundrum that I began this article with. When Troilus asks for his “varlet”, he is simply asking for a servant, in the same way one might ask for a ‘valet’. If this is Shallow’s sense, then he is being pretty positive about his “very good” servant.

Unfortunately, the sense of ‘servant’ is not too far removed from some less positive meanings, such as ‘social inferior’ (that used by Lear and Kent to insult the courtier Oswald), or even ‘sex slave’ (Patroclus as “Achilles’ male varlet”). All this eventually brings us to a more general meaning of ‘scoundrel’, employed by Elbow to describe Pompey and Thersites to describe everyone around him. Not employed, however, by Shallow, whom I take as an incompetent but far from malign presence in Henry IV part II, and thus not likely to cast aspersions on his servant as he enjoys some wine with his old friend Falstaff.

Word of the Day: Haggard

James Harriman-Smith - February 10, 2012 in Word of the Day

Although it’s not very polite, one can still say nowadays that someone is looking a bit ‘haggard’. Unfortunately, what we use the word to mean – “Wild-looking, applied [...] to the injurious effect upon the countenance of privation, want of rest, fatigue, anxiety, terror, or worry.” (OED) – is not the same as Shakespeare’s aim, as this passage from The Taming of the Shrew makes clear:

HORTENSIO Would all the world but he had quite forsworn!
For me, that I may surely keep mine oath,
I will be married to a wealtlly widow
Ere three days pass, which hath as long lov’d me
As I have lov’d this proud disdainful haggard.

Here Hortensio abandons his attempts to woo Kate (the eponymous ‘shrew’ of the play), taking leave of a woman he finds “proud, disdaindul”, and a “haggard”: that is to say, not ‘run-down’, but rather “wild”, or, better yet, “untamed”. “Haggard”, although it evolved to mean ‘wild-looking’, actually originates in falconry, where it means “a wild (female) hawk caught when in her adult plumage” (OED). Thus Petruchio, following what was once a common, euphuistic, metaphor, describes his plans for Kate, his shrewish future wife:

PETRUCHIO [...] Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper’s call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.

Peculiarly, this way of describing people in Shakespeare is only ever applied to women, and often carries overtones of male domination. Petruchio’s is ultimately comic, but Othello’s talk of haggards certainly is not. Enthralled by Iago, he promises that “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, / I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune.” Removing the metaphor, one could paraphrase as folllows, ‘If I find out that she’s disobedient, then – no matter what the cost – I’d cut all ties (jesses) between us.’

Last but not least in this swift flight over Shakespeare’s falconry, we have a woman using the word “haggard”. However, this woman is Twelfth Night’s Viola and she uses the word when disguised as a man. Continuing the gender-bending, she even portrays a man, and not a woman, “haggard”. That man is Feste, whom she likens to the touchy “haggard” who “check[s] at every feather / That comes before his eye”. The Fool of the play, unconstrained by decorum, reminds us of the wildness and hence the particular dramatic potential within this word in Shakespeare’s falconing time.

Word of the Day: Pawn

James Harriman-Smith - 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.

Word of the Day: Brimstone

James Harriman-Smith - January 20, 2012 in Word of the Day

Given that it’s been a while since I last wrote about Shakespeare and fire, I decided to return to the topic with this thrice-occurring word. Although we now talk about the ‘brim’ or edge of an object, the first syllable of today’s word is a distant descendant of the verb ‘burn’, as can be seen in the German for brimstone, bernstein (incidentally, also the surname of the composer behind the famous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story).

Brimstone is another word for sulphur, since sulphur is highly inflammable. The term used to be very common, and, tellingly, made it into the first English translation of the Bible. At one end of the good book, Genesis 19:24 talks about “brimstone and fire” that God rained on Sodom and Gomorrah; and, at the other end, Revelations 19:20 describes how idolators and those with the mark of the beast “were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone”.

Given these Biblical overtones, it is unsurprising to find two out of the three uses of “brimstone” in Shakespeare’s works involve oaths. Sir Toby, never one to speak with much refinement, bursts out with “Fire and brimstone!” when he overhears Malvolio’s daydreams about his employer and Toby’s sister, Olivia, for the first time. Elsewhere, Othello shouts, “Fire and brimstone!” when Desdemona unwittingly mentions how fond she is of Cassio. Given that Othello normally speaks with great polish, his slip into the same language as Sir Toby gives us a sense of how strikingly vulgar his emotional explosion must appear.

One last instance, again from Twelfth Night but this time from Sir Toby’s companion, Fabian, explaining to Sir Andrew Aguecheek that Olivia’s behaviour towards the disguised Viola/Cesario was obviously only intended to “ put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver”. Although, as soon becomes clear, Aguecheek’s wrath is far from possessing divine proportions…