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

p. 445



It would be difficult to enumerate the manifold forms of superstition which have, in most countries, in the course of past centuries, clustered round the human body. Many of these, too, may still be found scattered, here and there, throughout our own country. One of the most deep-rooted being palmistry, several allusions to which are made by Shakespeare.

   According to a popular belief current in years past, a trembling of the body was supposed to be an indication of demoniacal possession. Thus, in the "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 4), the courtezan says of Antipholus of Ephesus—

"Mark how he trembles in his ecstasy."

and Pinch adds—

"I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
 To yield possession to my holy prayers,
 And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight;
 I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven."

   In the "Tempest" (ii. 2), Caliban says to Stephano, "Thou dost me yet but little hurt; thou wilt anon, I know it by thy trembling."

   It was formerly supposed that our bodies consisted of the four elements—fire, air, earth, and water, and that all diseases arose from derangement in the due proportion of these elements. Thus in Antony's eulogium on Brutus in "Julius Cæsar" (v. 5) this theory is alluded to:—

"His life was gentle, and the elements
 So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
 And say to all the world, 'this was a man!'"

p. 446

   In "Twelfth Night" (ii. 3) it is also noticed:—

"Sir Toby. Do not our life consist of the four elements?
 Sir Andrew. ’Faith, so they say; but I think it rather consists of eating and drinking.
 Sir Toby. Thou art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Marian, I say! a stoop of wine!"

   In "Antony and Cleopatra" (v. 2), Shakespeare makes the latter say—

"I am fire and air, my other elements
 I give to baser life."

   This theory is the subject, too, of the 44th and 45th sonnets, and is set forth at large in its connection with physic in Sir Philip Sydney's "Arcadia":—

"O elements, by whose (men say) contention,
 Our bodies be in living power maintained,
 Was this man's death the fruit of your dissension?
 O physic's power, which (some say) hath restrained
 Approach of death, alas, thou keepest meagerly,
 When once one is for Atropos distrained,
 Great be physicians’ brags, but aide is beggarly
 When rooted moisture fails, or groweth drie
 They leave off all, and say, death comes too eagerly.
 They are but words therefore that men doe buy
 Of any, since God Esculapius ceased."

   This notion was substantially adopted by Galen, and embraced by the physicians of the olden times. 1

   Blood.—In old phraseology this word was popularly used for disposition or temperament. In "Timon of Athens" (iv. 2), Flavius says:—"Strange, unusual blood, when man's worst sin is, he does too much good!" In the opening passage of "Cymbeline" it occurs in the same sense—

"You do not meet a man but frowns: our bloods
 No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
 Still seem as does the king."

the meaning evidently being that, "our dispositions no longer obey the influences of heaven; they are courtiers, and still seem to resemble the disposition the king is in."

   Again, in "Much Ado About Nothing" (ii. 3)—"Wisdom

p. 447

and blood combating in so tender a body, we have ten proofs to one that blood hath the victory."

   Once more, in "King Lear" (iv. 2), the Duke of Albany says to Goneril—

                 "Were't my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones."

   Again, the phrase "to be in blood," was a term of the chase, meaning to be in good condition, to be vigorous. In "1 Henry VI." (iv. 2), Talbot exclaims—

"If we be English deer, be then in blood;
 Not rascal-like, to fall down with a pinch."

—the expression being put in opposition to "rascal," which was the term for the deer when lean and out of condition. In "Love's Labour's Lost" (iv. 2), Holofernes says—"The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood."

   The notion that the blood may be thickened by emotional influences, is mentioned by Polixenes in the "Winter's Tale" (i. 2), where he speaks of "thoughts that would thick my blood." In King John's temptation of Hubert to murder Arthur (iii. 3), it is thus referred to—.

"Or if that surly spirit, melancholy,
 Had baked thy blood and made it heavy-sick,
 Which else runs tickling up and down the veins," etc.

   Red blood was considered a traditionary sign of courage. Hence in the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. x), the Prince of Morocco, when addressing himself to Portia, and urging his claims for her hand, says—

"Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
 Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
 And let us make incision for your love, 1
 To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."

p. 448

   Again, in the present play, cowards are said to "have livers as white as milk," and an effeminate man is termed a "milksop." Macbeth, too, (v. 3) calls one of his frighted soldiers a "lily-liver’d boy." And in "King Lear" (ii. 2), the Earl of Kent makes use of the same phrase. In illustration of this notion Mr Douce 1 quotes from Bartholomew Glantville, who says—"Reed clothes have been layed upon deed men in remembrance of theyr hardynes and boldnes, whyle they were in theyr bloudde."

   The absence of blood in the liver as the supposed property of a coward, originated, says Dr Bucknill, 2 in the old theory of the circulation of the blood, which explains Sir Toby's remarks on his dupe in "Twelfth Night" (iii. 2)—"For Andrew, if he were opened, and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I'll eat the rest of the anatomy."

   We may quote here a notion referred to in "Lucrece" (1747–50) that, ever since the sad death of Lucrece, corrupted blood has watery particles—

"About the mourning and congealed face
 Of that blood a watery rigol goes,
 Which seems to weep upon the tainted place:
 And ever since, as pitying Lucrece's woes,
 Corrupted blood some watery token shows;
   And blood untainted still doth red abide,
   Blushing at that which is so putrified."

   Brain.—By old anatomists the brain was divided into three ventricles, in the hindermost of which they placed the memory. That this division was not unknown to Shakespeare, is apparent from "Love's Labour's Lost" (iv. 2), where Holofernes says—"A foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory." Again, Lady Macbeth (i. 7), speaking of Duncan's two chamberlains, says—

"Will I with wine and wassail so convince
 That memory, the warder of the brain,
 Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
 A limbeck only."

p. 449

   The "third ventricle is the cerebellum, by which the brain is connected with the spinal marrow and the rest of the body; the memory is posted in the cerebellum like a warder or sentinel to warn the reason against attack. Thus, when the memory is converted by intoxication into a mere fume, 1 then it fills the brain itself—the receipt or receptacle of reason, which thus becomes like an alembic or cap of a still." 2

   A popular nickname, in former times, for the skull, was "brain-pan;" to which Cade, in "2 Henry VI." (iv. 10), refers:—"Many a time, but for a sallet, my brain-pan had been cleft with a brown bill." The phrase "to beat out the brains" is used by Shakespeare metaphorically in the sense of defeat or destroy; just as now-a-days we popularly speak of knocking a scheme on the head. In "Measure for Measure" (v. 1), the Duke addressing Isabel tells her:—

"O most kind maid,
 It was the swift celerity of his death
 Which I did think with slower foot came on,
 That brain’d my purpose."

   The expression "to bear a brain," which is used by the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 3):—

"Nay, I do bear a brain,"

denoted "much mental capacity either of attention, ingenuity, or remembrance." 3 Thus in Marston's "Dutch Courtezan" (1605), we read:—

"My silly husband, alas! knows nothing of it, ’tis
 I that must beare a braine for all."

   The notion of the brain as the seat of the soul is mentioned by Prince Henry, who, referring to King John (v. 7), says:—

                        "His pure brain
Which some suppose the soul's frail dwelling-house
Doth by the idle comments that it makes
Foretell the ending of mortality."

p. 450

   Ear.—According to a well-known superstition, much credited in days gone by, and still extensively believed, a tingling of the right ear is considered lucky, being supposed to denote that a friend is speaking well of one, whereas a tingling of the left is said to imply the opposite. This notion, however, varies in different localities, as in some places it is the tingling of the left ear which denotes the friend, and the tingling of the right ear the enemy. In "Much ado about Nothing" (iii. 1), Beatrice asks Ursula and Hero, who had been talking of her:—

"What fire is in mine ears?"

the reference, no doubt, being to this popular fancy. Sir Thomas Browne 1 ascribes the idea to the belief in guardian angels, who touch the right or left ear according as the conversation is favourable or not to the person.

   In Shakespeare's day it was customary for young gallants to wear a long lock of hair dangling by the ear, known as a "love-lock." Hence in "Much ado about Nothing" (iii. 3), the Watch identifies one of his delinquents:—

"I know him; a’ wears a lock." 2

Again, further on (v. 1), Dogberry gives another allusion to this practice:—"He wears a key in his ear, and a lock hanging by it."

   An expression of endearment current in years gone by was "to bite the ear." In "Romeo and Juliet" (ii. 4), Mercutio says:—

"I will bite thee by the ear for that jest."

a passage which is explained in Nares’ ("Glossary," i. p. 8i), by the following one from Ben Jonson's "Alchemist" (ii. 3):—

"Mammon. Th’ hast witch’d me, rogue; take, go.
 Face. Your jack, and all, sir.
 Mammon. Slave, I could bite thine ear . . . Away, thou dost not care for me!"

Gifford, in his notes on Jonson's Works (ii. p. 184), says the odd mode of expressing pleasure by biting the ear seems "to

p. 451

be taken from the practice of animals, who, in a playful mood, bite each other's ears."

   Whilst speaking of the ear, it may be noted that the so-called want of ear for music has been regarded as a sign of an austere disposition. Thus Cæsar says of Cassius (i. 2):—

          "He hears no music,
Seldom he smiles."

There is too the well-known passage in the "Merchant of Venice" (v. 1):—

"The man that hath no music in himself,
 Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
 Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils."

According to the Italian proverb:—"Whom God loves not, that man loves not music." 1

   Elbow.—According to a popular belief the itching of the elbow denoted an approaching change of some kind or other. 2 Thus in "1 Henry IV." (v. 1), the King speaks of—

"Fickle changelings and poor discontents,
 Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
 Of hurlyburly innovation."

With this idea we may compare similar ones connected with other parts of the body. Thus in "Macbeth" (iv. 1), one of the Witches exclaims:—

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
 Something wicked this way comes."

Again, in "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 1), Ajax says, "My fingers itch," 3 and an itching palm was said to be an indication that the person would shortly receive money. Hence it denoted a hand ready to receive bribes. Thus in "Julius Cæsar" (iv. 3), Brutus says to Cassius:—

"Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
 Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;
 To sell and mart your offices for gold
 To undeservers."

So in "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 3), Shallow says:—"If I see a sword out, my finger itches to make one."

p. 452

   Again, in "Othello" (iv. 3), poor Desdemona says to Emilia:—

"Mine eyes do itch;
 Doth that bode weeping?"

   Grose alludes to this superstition, and says, "when the right eye itches, the party affected will shortly cry; if the left, they will laugh." The itching of the eye as an omen is spoken of by Theocritus, who says:—

"My right eye itches now, and I will see my love."

   Eyes.—A good deal of curious folk-lore has, at one time or another, clustered round the eye; and the well-known superstition known as the "evil eye" has already been described in the chapter on "Birth and Baptism." Blueness above the eye was, in days gone by, considered a sign of love, and as such is alluded to by Rosalind in "As You Like It" (iii. 2), where she enumerates the marks of love to Orlando:—"A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not."

   The term "baby in the eye" was sportively applied by our forefathers to the miniature reflection of himself, which a person may see in the pupil of another's eye. In "Timon of Athens" (i. 2), one of the Lords says:—

"Joy had the like conception in our eyes,
 And at that instant like a babe sprung up."

—an allusion probably being made to this whimsical notion. It is often referred to by old writers, as for instance by Drayton in his "Ideas"—

"But O, see, see! we need enquire no further,
 Upon your lips the scarlet drops are found,
 And in your eye, the boy that did the murder." 1

   We may compare the expression, "to look babies in the eyes," a common amusement of lovers in days gone by. In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Loyal Subject" (iii. 2), Theodore asks—

              "Can ye look babies, sisters,
In the young gallants’ eyes, and twirl their band-strings?"

And once more to quote from Massinger's "Renegado" (ii. 4), where Donusa says:—

"When a young lady wrings you by the hand, thus,
 Or with an amorous touch presses your foot;
 Looks babies in your eyes, plays with your locks." &c.

p. 453

   Another old term for the eyes was "crystal," which is used by Pistol to his wife, Mrs Quickly, in "Henry V." (ii. 3):—

"Therefore Caveto be thy counsellor.
 Go, clear thy crystals;"

that is, dry thine eyes.

   In "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 2), the phrase is employed by Benvolio:—

"Tut! you saw her fair, none else being by,
 Herself poised with herself in either eye:
 But in that crystal scales let there be weigh’d
 Your lady's love against some other maid," &c.

   It also occurs in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Double Marriage" (v. 3), where Juliana exclaims:—

               "Sleep you, sweet glasses!
An everlasting slumber crown those crystals."

   The expression "wall-eyed" denotes, says Dyce ("Glossary," p. 486), "eyes with a white or pale-gray iris—glaring-eyed." It is used by Lucius in "Titus Andronicus" (v. 1):—

"Say, wall-eyed slave, whither wouldst thou convey
 This growing image of thy fiend-like face?"

In "King John" (iv. 3), Salisbury speaks of "wall-eyed wrath."

   Brockett, in his "Glossary of North Country Words," says:—"In those parts of the north with which I am best acquainted, persons are said to be wall-eyed when the white of the eye is very large and to one side; on the borders 'sic folks' are considered lucky. The term is also occasionally applied to horses with similar eyes, though its wider general acceptation seems to be when the iris of the eye is white, or of a very pale colour. A wall-eyed horse sees perfectly well."

   Face.—A common expression "to play the hypocrite," or feign, was "to face." So in "1 Henry VI." (v. 3), Suffolk declares how—

               "Fair Margaret knows
That Suffolk does not flatter, face, or feign."

Hence the name of one of the characters in Ben Jonson's "Alchemist." So in the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1):—

"Yet have I faced it with a card of ten."

p. 454

   The phrase, also, "to face me down," implied insisting upon anything in opposition. So in the "Comedy of Errors" (iii.), Antipholus of Ephesus says:—

"But here's a villain that would face me down
 He met me on the mart."

   Feet.—Stumbling has from the earliest period been considered ominous. 1 Thus Cicero mentions it amongst the superstitions of his day; and numerous instances of this unlucky act have been handed down from bygone times. We are told by Ovid how Myrrha, on her way to Cinyra's chamber stumbled thrice, but was not deterred by the omen from an unnatural and fatal crime; and Tibullus (Lib. I., Eleg. iii. 20), refers to it:—

"O! quoties ingressus iter, mihi tristia dixi,
          Offensum in porta signa dedisse pedem."

   This superstition is alluded to by Shakespeare, who in "3 Henry VI." (iv. 7) makes Gloucester say:—

"For many men that stumble at the threshold
 Are well foretold that danger lurks within."

   In "Richard III." (iii. 4), Hastings relates:— 2

"Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble
 And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
 As loath to bear me to the slaughter house."

   In the same way, stumbling at a grave has been regarded as equally unlucky, and in "Romeo and Juliet" (v. 3), Friar Laurence says:—

               "How oft to-night
Have my old feet stumbled at graves."

   Hair.—From time immemorial there has been a strong antipathy to red hair, which originated, according to some antiquarians, in a tradition that Judas had hair of this colour.

p. 455

[paragraph continues] One reason, it may be, why the dislike to it arose, was that this colour was considered ugly and unfashionable, and on this account a person with red hair would soon be regarded with contempt. It has been conjectured, too, that the odium took its rise from the aversion to the red-haired Danes. In "As You Like It" (iii. 4), Rosalind, when speaking of Orlando, refers to this notion:— 1

"His very hair is of the dissembling colour."

Whereupon Celia replies:—

"Something browner than Judas's."

   Yellow hair, too, was in years gone by regarded with ill-favour, and esteemed a deformity. In ancient pictures and tapestries both Cain and Judas are represented with yellow beards, in allusion to which Simple, in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 4), when interrogated, says of his master, "He hath but a little wee face, with a little yellow beard—a Cain coloured beard." 2

   In speaking of beards, it may be noted that formerly they gave rise to various customs. Thus, in Shakespeare's day, dyeing beards was a fashionable custom, and so Bottom, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (i. 2), is perplexed as to what beard he should wear when acting before the Duke. He says, "I will discharge it in either your straw-colour beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or your French crown-colour beard, your perfect yellow." 3

   To mutilate a beard in any way was considered an irreparable outrage, a practice to which Hamlet refers (ii. 2):—

"Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
 Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?"

And in "King Lear" (iii. 7), Gloucester exclaims—

"By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done
 To pluck me by the beard."

   Stroking the beard before a person spoke was preparatory

p. 456

to favour. Hence in "Troilus and Cressida" (i. 3), Ulysses, when describing how Achilles asks Patroclus to imitate certain of their chiefs, represents him as saying:—

"Now play me Nestor; hem, and stroke thy beard,
 As he being drest to some oration."

   Again, the phrase "to beard" meant to oppose face to face in a hostile manner. Thus in "1 Henry IV." (iv. 1), Douglas declares:—

"No man so potent breathes upon the ground
 But I will beard him."

And in "1 Henry VI." (i. 3), the Bishop of Winchester says to Gloucester:—

"Do what thou darest; I beard thee to thy face."

   It seems also to have been customary to swear by the beard, an allusion to which is made by Touchstone in "As You Like It" (i. 2):—"Stroke your chins, and swear by your beards that I am a knave."

   We may also compare what Nestor says in "Troilus and Cressida" (iv. 5):—

"By this white beard, I’ld fight with thee to-morrow."

   Our ancestors paid great attention to the shape of their beards, certain cuts being appropriated to certain professions and ranks. In "King Henry V." (iii. 6), Gower speaks of "a beard of the general's cut." As Mr Staunton remarks, "Not the least odd among the fantastic fashions of our forefathers was the custom of distinguishing certain professions and classes by the cut of the beard; thus we hear, inter alia, of the bishop's beard, the judge's beard, the soldier's beard, the citizen's beard, and even the clown's beard." Randle Holme tells us, "The broad or cathedral beard [is] so-called because bishops and gown-men of the church anciently did wear such beards." By the military man, the cut adopted was known as the stiletto or spade. The beard of the citizen was usually worn round, as Mrs Quickly describes it in "Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 4), "like a glover's paring knife." The clown's beard was left bushy or untrimmed.

p. 457

[paragraph continues] Malone quotes from an old ballad entitled "Le Prince d’ Amour," 1660:—

"Next the clown doth out-rush
 With the beard of the bush."

   According to an old superstition, much hair on the head has been supposed to indicate an absence of intellect, a notion referred to by Antipholus of Syracuse in the "Comedy of Errors" (ii. 2):—"There's many a man hath more hair than wit." In the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (iii. 1), the same proverbial sentence is mentioned by Speed. Malone quotes the following lines upon Suckling's "Aglaura," as an illustration of this saying 1:—

"This great voluminous pamphlet may be said
 To be like one that hath more hair than head;
 More excrement than body: trees which sprout
 With broadest leaves have still the smallest fruit."

   Steevens gives an example from "Florio":—"A tisty-tosty wag-feather, more haire than wit."

   Excessive fear has been said to cause the hair to stand on end; an instance of which Shakespeare records in "Hamlet" (iii. 4), in that celebrated passage where the Queen, being at a loss to understand her son's strange appearance during his conversation with the Ghost, which is invisible to her, says:—

"And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
 Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
 Starts up, and stands an end."

   A further instance occurs in the "Tempest" (i. 2), where Ariel, describing the shipwreck, graphically relates how—

                   "All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king's son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring—then like reeds, not hair—
Was the first man that leap’d."

   Again, Macbeth says (i. 3):—

     "Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair?"

p. 458

[paragraph continues] And further on he says (v. 5):—

"The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
 To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
 Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir As life were in’t."

   In "2 Henry VI." (iii. 2), it is referred to by Suffolk as a sign of madness:—

"Mine hair be fix’d on end, as one distract."

   And once more, in "King Richard III." (i. 3), Hastings declares

"Mine hair doth stand on end to hear her curses."

   Another popular notion, mentioned by Shakespeare, is that sudden fright or great sorrow will cause the hair to turn white. In "1 Henry IV." (ii. 4), Falstaff, in his speech to Prince Henry, tells him:—

"Thy father's beard is turned white with the news."

   Among the many instances recorded to establish the truth of this idea, it is said that the hair and beard of the Duke of Brunswick whitened in twenty-four hours, upon his hearing that his father had been mortally wounded in the battle of Auerstadt. Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate queen of Louis XVI., found her hair suddenly changed by her troubles; and a similar change happened to Charles I., when he attempted to escape from Carisbroke Castle. Mr Timbs, in his "Doctors and Patients" (1876, p. 201), says that "chemists have discovered that hair contains an oil, a mucous substance, iron, oxide of manganese, phosphate and carbonate of iron, flint, and a large proportion of sulphur. White hair contains also phosphate of magnesia, and its oil is nearly colourless. When hair becomes suddenly white from terror, it is probably owing to the sulphur absorbing the oil, as in the operation of whitening woollen cloths."

   Hair was formerly used metaphorically for the colour, complexion, or nature of a thing. In "1 Henry IV." (iv. 1), Worcester says

     "I would your father had been here,
The quality and hair of our attempt
Brooks no division."

p. 459

   In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Nice Valour," it is so used:—

"A lady of my hair cannot want pitying."

   Hands.—Various superstitions have at different times clustered round the hand. Thus in palmistry a moist one is said to denote an amorous constitution. In "Othello" (iii. 4), we have the following allusion to this popular notion

"Othello. Give me your hand: this hand is moist, my lady.
 Desdemona. It yet have felt no age nor known no sorrow.
 Othello. This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart."

Again in "Antony and Cleopatra" (i. 2), Iras says—"There's a palm presages chastity;" whereupon Charmian adds—"If an oily palm be not a fruitful prognostication, I cannot scratch mine ear." And in the "Comedy of Errors" (iii. 2), Dromio of Syracuse speaks of barrenness as "hard in the palm of the hand."

   A dry hand, however, has been supposed to denote age and debility. In "2 Henry IV." (i. 2), the Lord Chief Justice enumerates this amongst the characteristics of such a constitution. 1

   In the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 2), Launcelot, referring to the language of palmistry, calls the hand "the table," meaning thereby the whole collection of lines on the skin, within the hand:—"Well, if any man in Italy hath a fairer table which doth offer to swear upon a book, I shall have good fortune." He then alludes to one of the lines in the hand, known as the "line of life:"—"Go to, here's a simple line of life."

   In the "Two Noble Kinsmen" (iii. 5), palmistry is further mentioned:—

"Gaoler's Daughter. Give me your hand.
 Gerrold. Why?
 Gaoler's Daughter. I can tell your fortune."

   It was once supposed that little worms were bred in the fingers of idle servants. To this notion Mercutio refers in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 4), where, in his description of Queen Mab, he says:—

"Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,
 Not half so big as a round little worm
 Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid."

p. 460

   This notion is alluded to by John Banister, a famous surgeon in Shakespeare's day, in his "Compendious Chyrurgerie" (1585, p. 465):—"We commonly call them worms, which many women, sitting in the sunshine, can cunningly picke out with needles, and are most common in the handes."

   A popular term formerly in use for the nails on the ten fingers was the "ten commandments," which, says Nares, 1 "doubtless led to the swearing by them, as by the real commandments." Thus, in "2 Henry VI." (i. 3), the Duchess of Gloucester says to the Queen:—

"Could I come near your beauty with my nails
 I’ld set my ten commandments in your face."

   In the same way the fingers were also called the "ten bones," as a little further on in the same play where Peter swears "by these ten bones."

   The phrase "of his hands" was equivalent to "of his inches, or of his size; a hand being the measure of four inches." So in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 4), Simple says:—"Ay, forsooth: but he is as tall a man of his hands as any is between this and his head," "the expression being used probably for the sake of a jocular equivocation in the word tall, which meant either bold or high." 2

   Again, in the "Winter's Tale" (v. 2), the Clown tells the Shepherd:—"I'll swear to the prince thou art a tall fellow of thy hands and that thou wilt not be drunk; but I know thou art no tall fellow of thy hands and that thou wilt be drunk; but I'll swear it, and I would thou wouldst be a tall fellow of thy hands."

   A proverbial phrase for being tall from necessity was "to blow the nail." In "3 Henry VI." (ii. 5), the King says:—

"When dying clouds contend with growing light
 What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
 Can neither call it perfect day or night."

It occurs in the song at the end of "Love's Labour's Lost":—

"And Dick the shepherd blows his nails."

   "To bite the thumb" at a person implied an insult; hence

p. 461

in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 1), Sampson says:—"I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they hear it."

The thumb in this action we are told "represented a fig, and the whole was equivalent to a fig for you." 1 Decker in his "Dead Term" (1608), speaking of the various groups that daily frequented St Pauls’ Church, says:—"What swearing is there, what shouldering, what justling, what jeering, what byting of thumbs, to beget quarrels?"

   Hare-lip.—A cleft lip so called from its supposed resemblance to the upper lip of a hare. It was popularly believed to be the mischievous act of an elf or malicious fairy. So in "King Lear" (iii. 4), Edgar says of Gloucester:—"This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet:—He squints the eye and makes the hare-lip." In the "Midsummer Night's Dream" (v. 2), Oberon, in blessing the bridal bed of Theseus and Hippolyta, says:—"Never mole, hare lip, nor scar," &c., "shall upon their children be."

   The expression "hang the lip" meant to drop the lip in sullenness or contempt. Thus in "Troilus and Cressida" (iii. 1), Helen explains why her brother Troilus is not abroad by saying:—"He hangs the lip at something." We may compare, too, the words in "1 Henry IV." (ii. 4):—"A foolish hanging of thy nether lip."

   Head—According to the old writers on physiognomy, a round head denoted foolishness, a notion to which reference is made by "Cleopatra" (iii. 3), in the following dialogue, who enquiring about Octavia, says to the messenger—

           "Bear’st thou her face in mind? Is’t long or round?
Messenger. Round even to faultiness.
Cleopatra. For the most part, too, they are foolish that are so."

In Hill's "Pleasant History," etc. (1613) we read:—"The head very round, to be forgetful and foolish." Again—"The head long, to be prudent and wary."

   Heart.—The term "broken heart" as commonly applied to death from excessive grief, is not a vulgar error, but may

p. 462

arise from violent muscular exertion, or strong mental emotions. In "Macbeth" (iv. 3) Malcolm says:—

                "The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break."

We may compare, too, Queen Margaret's words to Buckingham in "King Richard III." (i. 3) where she prophesies how Gloucester—

"Shall split thy very heart with sorrow."

   Mr Timbs, in his "Mysteries of Life, Death, and Futurity" (1861, p. 149), has given the following note on the subject "This affection was, it is believed, first described by Harvey; but since his day several cases have been observed. Morgagni has recorded a few examples: amongst them, that of George II., who died suddenly of this disease in 1760; and, what is very curious, Morgagni himself fell a victim to the same malady. Dr Elliotson, in his Lumleyan Lectures on Diseases of the Heart in 1839, stated that he had only seen one instance; but in the 'Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine,' Dr Townsend gives a table of twenty-five cases, collected from various authors."

   In olden times the heart was esteemed the seat of the understanding. Hence in "Coriolanus" (i. 1) the Citizen speaks of "the counsellor heart." With the ancients, also, the heart was considered the seat of courage, to which Shakespeare refers in "Julius Cæsar" (iii 2):—

"Ser. Plucking the entrails of an offering forth
 They could not find a heart within the beast.
 Cæs. The gods do this in shame of cowardice:
 Cæsar should be a beast without a heart,
 If he should stay at home to-day for fear."

   Liver.—By a popular notion the liver was anciently supposed to be the seat of love, a superstition to which Shakespeare frequently alludes. Thus, in "Love's Labour's Lost" (iv. 3), Biron, after listening to Longaville's sonnet, remarks:—

"This is the liver-vein, which makes flesh a deity,
 A green goose a goddess; pure, pure idolatry."

In "Much ado about Nothing" (iv. 1), Friar Francis says:—

"If ever love had interest in his liver."

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[paragraph continues] Again, in "As You Like It" (iii. 2), Rosalind professing to be able to cure love, which, he says, is "merely a madness," says to Orlando, "I will take upon me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep's heart, that there shall not be one spot of love in’t." In "Twelfth Night" (ii. 4), the Duke, speaking of women's love, says:—

"Their love may be call’d appetite,
 No motion of the liver, but the palate," &c.

And Fabian (ii. 5), alluding to Olivia's supposed letter to Malvolio, says:—

"This wins him, liver and all."

Once more, in "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 1), Pistol alludes to the liver as being the inspirer of amorous passions, for, speaking of Falstaff, he refers to his loving Ford's wife "with liver burning hot." 1 Douce says, 2 "there is some reason for thinking that this superstition was borrowed from the Arabian physicians, or at least adopted by them; for in the Turkish tales, an amorous tailor is made to address his wife by the titles of 'thou corner of my liver, and soul of my love;' and in another place the King of Syria, who had sustained a temporary privation of his mistress, is said to have had 'his liver, which had been burnt up by the loss of her, cooled and refreshed at the sight of her.'" According to an old Latin distich—

"Cor sapit, pulmo loquitur, fel commoret iras
 Splen ridere facit, cogit amare jecur."

Bartholomæus in his "De Proprietatibus Rerum" (lib. v. 39), informs us that "the liver is the place of voluptuousness and lyking of the flesh."

   Moles.—These have from time immemorial been regarded as ominous, and special attention has been paid by the superstitious to their position on the body. 3 In "A Midsummer

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[paragraph continues] Night's Dream" (v. 1), a mole on a child is spoken of by Oberon as a bad omen, who, speaking of the three who had lately been married, says:—

"And the blots of Nature's hand
 Shall not in their issue stand;
 Never mole, hare-lip, nor scar,
 Nor mark prodigious, such as are
 Despised in nativity,
 Shall upon their children be."

Iachimo ("Cymbeline," ii. 2) represents Imogene as having—

                        "On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip."

And we may also compare the words of Cymbeline (v. 5)—

                        "Guiderius had
Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star;
It was a mark of wonder."

   Spleen.—This was once supposed to be the cause of laughter, a notion probably referred to by Isabella in "Measure for Measure" (ii. 2), where, telling how the angels weep over the follies of men she adds—

                 "Who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal."

In "Taming of the Shrew" (Induction, sc. i.), the lord says:—

                      "Haply my presence
May well abate the over-merry spleen
Which otherwise would grow into extremes."

And Maria says to Sir Toby in "Twelfth Night" (iii. 2):—"If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourselves into stitches, follow me."

   Wits.—With our early writers, the five senses were usually called the "five wits." So, in "Much ado about Nothing" (i. 1), Beatrice says:—"In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one." In his 141st Sonnet, Shakespeare makes a distinction between wits and senses—

"But my five wits nor my five senses can
 Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee."

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   The five wits, says Staunton, being "common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation, memory." Johnson says the "wits seem to have been reckoned five, by analogy to the five senses, or the five inlets of ideas." In "King Lear" (iii. 4), we find the expression, "Bless thy five wits."

   According to a curious fancy, eating beef was supposed to impair the intellect, to which notion Shakespeare has several allusions. Thus, in "Twelfth Night" (i. 3), Sir Andrew says—"Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe, that does harm to my wit." In "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 1), Thersites says to Ajax—"The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!"


446:1 See Bucknill's "Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare," p. 120.

447:1 Mr Singer, in a note on this passage, says, "it was customary in the East, for lovers to testify the violence of their passion, by cutting themselves in the sight of their mistresses; and the fashion seems to have been adopted here as a mark of gallantry in Shakespeare's time, when young men frequently stabbed their arms with daggers, and, mingling the blood with wine, drank it off to the healths of their mistresses."—ii., p. 417.

448:1 Cf. "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, p. 156.

448:2 "Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare," p. 124.

449:1 Cf. "Tempest," (v. 1.):—

"The ignorant fumes that mantle
 Their clearer reason."

449:2 Clarke and Wright's "Notes to Macbeth," 1877, p. 101.

449:3 Singer's "Shakespeare," viii. p. 123.

450:1 "Vulgar Errors," book v., chap. 23 (Bohn's edition, 1852, ii. p. 82).

450:2 Prynne attacked the fashion in his "Unloveliness of Love-locks."

451:1 See Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," pp. 165, 166.

451:2 Ibid, p. 273.

451:3 See "Romeo and Juliet" (iii. 5), where Capulet says, "My fingers itch," denoting anxiety.

452:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," i. p. 44.

454:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. p. 249; Jones’ "Credulities Past and Present," pp. 529–531; "Notes and Queries," 5th S., viii. p. 201.

454:2 The following is from Holinshed, who copies Sir Thomas More:—"In riding toward the Tower the same morning in which he (Hastings) was beheaded, his horse twice or thrice stumbled with him, almost to the falling; which thing, albeit each man wot well daily happeneth to them to whome no such mischance is toward; yet hath it beene of an olde rite and custome observed as a token oftentimes notablie foregoing some great misfortune."

455:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," i. p. 127; Dyce's "Glossary," pp. 61, 230.

455:2 The quartos of 1602 read "a kane-coloured beard."

455:3 See Jaques’ Description of the Seven Ages in "As You Like It," (ii. 6).

457:1 "Parnassus Biceps," 1656.

459:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. p. 179.

460:1 "Glossary," ii. p. 871.

460:2 Ibid., i. p. 402.

461:1 See page 207.

463:1 Cf. "Antony and Cleopatra" (i. 2)—

"Soothsayer. You shall be more beloving than beloved.
 Charmian. I had rather heat my liver with drinking."

463:2 "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, pp. 38, 39.

463:3 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq." 1849, iii. pp. 252–5.

Next: Chapter XXI. Fishes