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Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, [1883], at

p. 362



From a very early period, rings and precious stones have held a prominent place in the traditionary lore, customs, and superstitions of most nations. Thus rings have been supposed "to protect from evil fascinations of every kind, against the evil eye, the influence of demons, and dangers of every possible character; though it was not simply in the rings themselves that the supposed virtues existed, but in the materials of which they were composed,—in some particular precious stone that was set in them as charms or talismans, in some device or inscription on the stone, or some magical letters engraved on the circumference of the ring." 1 Rings, too, in days gone by, had a symbolical importance. Thus, it was anciently the custom for every monarch to have a ring, the temporary possession of which invested the holder with the same authority as the owner himself could exercise. Thus, in "Henry VIII.," (v. 1), we have the king's ring given to Cranmer, and presented by him (sc. 2), as a security against the machinations of Gardiner and others of the Council, who were plotting to destroy him. Thus the King says,—

                        "If entreaties
Will render you no remedy, this ring
Deliver them, and your appeal to us
There make before them."

   This custom, too, was not confined to royalty, for in "King Richard II.," (ii. 2), the Duke of York gives this order to his servant,—

"Sirrah, get thee to Plashy, to my sister Gloucester;
 Bid her send me presently a thousand pound:
 Hold, take my ring.

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   There is an interesting relic of the same custom still kept up at Winchester College. 1 When the captain of the school petitions the head-master for a holiday, and obtains it, he receives from him a ring, in token of the indulgence granted, which he wears during the holiday, and returns to the headmaster when it is over. The inscription upon the ring was formerly "Potentiam fero, geroque." It is now "Commendat rarior usus," (Juvenal, Sat. xi. 208).

   Token Rings date from very early times. Edward the First in 1297 presented Margaret, his fourth daughter, with a golden pyx, in which he deposited a ring, as a token of his unfailing love.

   When Richard III. (i. 2), brings his hasty wooing to a conclusion, he gives the Lady Anne a ring, saying,—

"Look, how this ring encompasseth thy finger,
 Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart;
 Wear both of them, for both of them are thine."

   In "Cymbeline," (i. 1), Imogen gives Posthumus a ring when they part, and he presents her with a bracelet in exchange,—

                          "Look here, love;
This diamond was my mother's; take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.
Posthumus. How! how! another?
You gentle gods, give me but this I have,
And sear up my embracements from a next
With bonds of death! Remain, remain, thou here,
                                    (Putting on the ring.)
While sense can keep it on."

   Yet he afterwards gives it up to Iachimo (ii. 4)—upon a false representation—to test his wife's honour,—

"Here, take this too;
 It is a basilisk unto my eye,
 Kills me to look on’t."

   The exchange of rings, a solemn mode of private contract between lovers, we have already referred to in the chapter on Marriage,—a practice alluded to in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (ii. 2) where Julia gives Proteus a ring, saying—"Keep this remembrance for thy Julia's sake"; and he replies, "Why, then we'll make exchange: here, take you this."

p. 364

   Death's-head rings.—Rings engraved with skulls and skeletons were not necessarily mourning rings, but were also worn by persons who affected gravity; and, curious to say, by the procuresses of Elizabeth's time. Biron, in "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2), refers to "a death's face in a ring;" and we may quote Falstaff's words in "2 Henry IV." (ii. 4)—"Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death's head; do not bid me remember mine end." We may compare the following, "The Chances" (i. 5), by Beaumont and Fletcher:—

"As they keep deaths’ heads in rings,
 To cry 'memento' to me."

According to Mr Fairholt, "the skull and skeleton decorations for rings first came into favour and fashion at the obsequious Court of France, when Diana, of Poictiers, became the mistress of Henry the Second. At that time she was a widow, and in mourning, so black and white became fashionable colours; jewels were formed like funeral memorials; golden ornaments shaped like coffins, holding enamelled skeletons, hung from the neck; watches, made to fit in little silver skulls were attached to the waists of the denizens of a court that alternately indulged in profanity or piety, but who mourned show." 1

   Posy-rings were formerly much used—it having been customary to inscribe a motto or "posy" within the hoop of the betrothal ring. 2* Thus in the "Merchant of Venice" (v. 1), Gratiano, when asked by Portia the reason of his quarrel with Nerissa, answers—

"About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring
 That she did give me, whose posy was
 For all the world like cutler's poetry
 Upon a knife, 'Love me, and leave me not.'"

In "As You Like It" (iii. 2), Jaques tells Orlando "you are full of pretty answers. Have you not been acquainted with goldsmiths’ wives, and conned them out of rings?"

   Again, Hamlet (iii. 2), asks

"Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?"

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[paragraph continues] Many of our old writers allude to the "posy-rings." Thus Herrick in his "Hesperides," says:—

"What posies for our wedding rings,
 What gloves we'll give and ribbonings."

Henry VIII. gave Anne of Cleves a ring with the following posy—"God send me well to kepe," a most unpropitious alliance, as the king expressed his dislike to her soon after the marriage.

   Thumb-rings.—These were generally broad gold rings worn on the thumb by important personages. Thus Falstaff ("1 Henry IV." ii. 4), bragged that in his earlier years he had been so slender in figure as to "creep into an alderman's thumb-ring;" and a ring thus worn—probably as more conspicuous—appears to have been considered as appropriate to the customary attire of a civic dignitary at a much later period. A character in the Lord Mayor Show in 1664 is described as 'habited like a grave citizen—gold girdle and gloves hung thereon, rings on his fingers, and a seal ring on his thumb.'" 1 Chaucer in his "Squire's Tale," says of the rider of the brazen horse who advanced into the hall, Cambuscan, that "upon his thumb he had of gold a ring." In "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 4), Mercutio speaks of the—

             "Agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman."

It has been suggested that Shakespeare in the following passage alludes to the annual celebration at Venice of the wedding of the Doge with the Adriatic, when he makes Othello say (i. 2):—

"But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
 I would not my unhoused free condition
 Put into circumscription and confine
 For the sea's worth."

This custom, it is said, was instituted by Pope Alexander III., who gave the doge a gold ring from his own finger in token of the victory by the Venetian fleet at Istria over Frederick Barbarossa, in defence of the Pope's quarrel. When his holiness gave the ring, he desired the doge to throw a similar

p. 366

ring into the sea every year on Ascension Day, in commemoration of the event.

   Agate.—This stone was frequently cut to represent the human form, and was occasionally worn in the hat by gallants. In "2 Henry IV." (i. 2), Falstaff says, "I was never manned with an agate till now," meaning, according to Johnson, "had an agate for my man;" was waited on by an agate.

   Carbuncle.—The supernatural lustre of this gem 1 is supposed to be described in "Titus Andronicus" (ii. 3), where, speaking of the ring on the finger of Bassianus, Martius says—

"Upon his bloody finger he doth wear
 A precious ring, that lightens all the hole,
 Which, like a taper in some monument,
 Doth shine upon the dead man's earthy cheeks,
 And shows the ragged entrails of the pit."

   In Drayton's "Muses’ Elysium" ("Nymphal," ix.), it is thus eulogised—

"That admired mighty stone,
   The carbuncle that's named,
 Which from it such a flaming light
   And radiancy ejecteth—
 That in the very darkest night
   The eye to it directeth."

   Milton, speaking of the cobra, says—

                   "His head
Crested aloof, and carbuncle his eyes."

   John Norton, 2 an alchemist in the reign of Edward IV., wrote a poem entitled the "Ordinal," or a manual of the chemical art. One of his projects, we are told, was a bridge of gold over the Thames, crowned with pinnacles of gold, which, being studded with carbuncles, would diffuse a blaze of light in the dark. Amongst the other references to it given by Shakespeare may be mentioned one in "Henry VIII." (ii. 3), where the Princess Elizabeth is spoken of as—

              "A gem
To lighten all this isle."

And Hamlet (ii. 2) uses the phrase, "With eyes like carbuncles."

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   Chrysolite.—This stone was supposed to possess peculiar virtues, and, according to Simon Maiolus, in his "Dierum Caniculares" (1615–19), Thetel the Jew, who wrote a book, "De Sculpturiis," mentions one naturally in the form of a woman, which was potent against fascination of all kinds. Othello (v. 2) thus alludes to this stone in reference to his wife—

                      "Nay, had she been true,
If heaven could make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I’ld not have sold her for it."

   Pearls.—The eastern custom of powdering sovereigns at their coronation with gold dust and seed pearl is alluded to in "Antony and Cleopatra" 1 (ii. 5)—

"I'll set thee in a shower of gold, and hail
 Rich pearls upon thee."

   So Milton ("Paradise Lost," ii. 4):—

"The gorgeous east, with liberal hand
 Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold."

   Again, to swallow a pearl in a draught seems to have been common to royal and mercantile prodigality. In "Hamlet" (v. 2), the King says—

"The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath;
 And in the cup an union 2 shall he throw."

   Further on Hamlet himself asks, tauntingly—

"Here, thou incestuous, murdrous, damned Dane,
 Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?"

   Malone, as an illustration of this custom, quotes from the second part of Heywood's "If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody"—

"Here sixteen thousand pound at one clap goes
 Instead of sugar. Gresham drinks this pearl
 Unto the queen his mistress."

p. 368

   In former times, powdered pearls were considered invaluable for stomach complaints; and Rondeletius tells us that they were supposed to possess an exhilarating quality—"Uniones quæ a conchis, et valde cordiales sunt."

   Much mystery was in bygone days thought to hang over the origin of pearls, and according to the poetic Orientals, 1 "Every year, on the sixteenth day of the month Nisan, the pearl oysters rise to the sea and open their shells, in order to receive the rain which falls at that time, and the drops thus caught become pearls." Thus, in "Richard III." (iv. 4), the king says:—

"The liquid drops of tears that you have shed
 Shall come again, transform’d to orient pearl,
 Advantaging their loan with interest
 Of ten times double gain of happiness."

Moore, in one of his melodies, notices this pretty notion—

"And precious the tear as that rain from the sky
 Which turns into pearls as it falls in the sea."

   Turquoise.—This stone was probably more esteemed for its secret virtues than from any commercial value; the turquoise, turkise, or turkey-stone, having from a remote period, been supposed to possess talismanic properties. Thus, in the "Merchant of Venice" (iii. 1), Shylock says:—"It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys." Mr Dyce 2 says that Shylock valued his torquoise, "not only as being the gift of Leah, but on account of the imaginary virtues ascribed to it; which was supposed to become pale or to brighten according as the health of the wearer was bad or good." Thus, Ben Jonson in "Sejanus" (i. 1), alludes to its wonderful properties—

"And true as turkoise in the dear lord's ring,
 Look well or ill with him."

   Fenton, in his "Certain Secret Wonders of Nature" (1569), thus describes it:—"The turkeys doth move when there is any

p. 369

evil prepared to him that weareth it." There were numerous other magical properties ascribed to the turquoise. Thus, it was supposed to lose its colour entirely at the death of its owner, but to recover it when placed upon the finger of a new and healthy possessor. It was also said that whoever wore a turquoise, so that either it or its setting touched the skin, might fall from any height; the stone attracting to itself the whole force of the blow. With the Germans, the turquoise is still the gem appropriated to the ring, the "gage d’amour," presented by the lover on the acceptance of his suit, the permanence of its colour being believed to depend upon the constancy of his affection. 1


362:1 Jones's "Finger-Ring Lore," 1877, p. 91.

363:1 Wordsworth's "Shakespeare and the Bible," 1880, p. 283.

364:1 See Jones's "Finger Ring Lore," 1877, p. 372.

364:2 Ibid, pp. 390–418; see "Notes and Queries."

365:1 See Jones's "Finger Ring Lore," 1877, p. 88.

366:1 See Sir Thomas Browne's "Vulgar Errors."

366:2 Jones’ "Precious Stones," 1880, p. 62.

367:1 See Singer's "Shakespeare," x. p. 213.

367:2 An union is a precious pearl, remarkable for its size.

368:1 See Jones's "History and Mystery of Precious Stones," p. 116.

368:2 "Glossary," p. 465.

369:1 See C. W. King on "Precious Stones." 1867, p. 267.

Next: Chapter XVI. Sports and Pastimes