David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 5

— 3.5 —

A schoolmaster and six countrymen were talking; they intended to dance a morris dance for Duke Theseus and other nobles. One of the countrymen was dressed as a Bavian, or baboon.

The schoolmaster said, “Bah, bah, what tediosity and disinsanity is here among you!”

“Tediosity” and “disinsanity” were words of his own coinage.

He continued, “Have my rudiments been labored so long with you, milked unto you, and, by a figure, even the very plum broth and marrow of my understanding laid upon you, and do you still cry ‘Where?’ and ‘How?’ and ‘Wherefore?’”

By “figure,” he meant “figure of speech,” something he was fond of. Plum broth and marrow were regarded as tasty foods.

He continued, “You most coarse-frieze capacities, you jean judgments, have I said, ‘Thus let be’ and ‘There let be’ and ‘Then let be,’ and no man understands me?”

“Frieze” was a type of woolen cloth, and “jean” was a type of cotton cloth. Neither was a luxurious cloth, and so the schoolmaster was calling the dancers rough and unsophisticated.

He continued, “Proh deum, medius fidius!”

Proh deum is Latin for “Oh, god.” Medius fidius is Latin for “Help me!”

He continued, “You are all dunces!”

He then went over the plans for the morris dance again:

“Here stand I; here the Duke comes; there are you, nearby in the thicket; the Duke appears; I meet him and to him I utter learned things and many figures; he hears, and nods, and hums in approval, and then cries, ‘Rare! Marvelous!’ and I go forward. At length I fling my cap up — pay attention to that! Then you do as once did Meleager and the boar — break comely out before him.”

The schoolmaster was mistaken about some of the details of Meleager and the boar. Meleager had hunted and killed the boar, which had broken out of a thicket ferociously — not comely, which means “daintily and gently.”

He continued, “Like true lovers, cast yourselves in a body — arrange yourselves in a group ready to dance — decently, and sweetly, by a figure, trace and turn, boys.”

The “figure” was a dance-figure; by “trace and turn,” he meant “dance some steps and revolve.”

The first countryman said, “And sweetly we will do it, schoolmaster Gerald.”

The second countryman said, “Draw up the company — bring everyone into the proper order. Where’s the taborer?”

The third countryman called, “Why, Timothy!”

The taborer arrived. The taborer is a musician who plays on a tabor — a small drum. Often, the taborer plays at the same time a pipe — a wind instrument.

The taborer said, “Here I am, my mad boys. Have at you!”

“Have at you!” announces a coming action. Here the taborer played a few beats on his drum.

The schoolmaster asked, “But I say, where’s their women?”

Five women arrived.

The fourth countryman said, “Here’s Friz and Maudlin.”

“Friz” was perhaps short for Frances, and “Maudlin” was perhaps short for Magdalene.

The second countryman said, “And little Luce with the white legs, and bouncing Barbary.”

“Bouncing” meant “vigorous and healthy.”

The first countryman added, “And freckled Nell, who never failed her master.”

One way to never fail a master is to never say no.

“Where are your ribbons, maidens?” the schoolmaster asked.

The morris dancers sometimes performed while holding streamers.

The schoolmaster continued, “Swim and move gracefully with your bodies, and carry it off sweetly and deliverly, aka nimbly, and now and then make a favor, aka a bow or a curtsey, and make a frisk, aka a caper or jig.”

“Don’t worry about us,” Nell said.

“Where’s the rest of the musicians?” the schoolmaster said.

“Dispersed, as you commanded,” the third countryman said. “They are nearby.”

“Divide up into couples, then, and let’s see what’s lacking,” the schoolmaster said. “Where’s the Bavian, aka baboon?”

Seeing the countryman who would play the baboon, the schoolmaster said, “My friend, carry your tail without offense or scandal to the ladies; don’t pretend it is a penis, and be sure you tumble with audacity and manliness, and when you bark, do it with judgment.”

In this culture, people thought that baboons were half man and half dog.

“Yes, sir,” the countryman who would play the baboon replied.

Quo usque tandem?” the schoolmaster said. “We are lacking a female dancer.” 

Quo usque tandem?” is the Latin beginning — “How long then?” — of Cicero’s first oration against Catiline, who was a danger to the Roman Republic. The speech begins, “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” It means, “How long then will you, Catiline, abuse our patience?” The schoolmaster was running out of patience.

The fourth countryman said, “We may go whistle; all the fat’s in the fire.”

“We may go whistle” means “We won’t get what we want, so we may as well leave and whistle.” “To go whistle” is an idiom for “have no chance of success.”

“The fat is in the fire” is an idiom for “Bad consequences will follow.” When fat falls into fire, the result is a burst of flames. Here it also means, figuratively, “Our work was done in vain.” The fat is often tasty, and if the fat falls into the fire, one can’t eat it.

The schoolmaster said, “We have, as learned authors utter, washed a tile; we have been fatuus — foolish — and labored vainly.”

“To wash a tile” is a proverb that means “Our work was done in vain.” Tiles are used to line fireplaces. Each time a fire is lit, the tiles get dirty.

The second countryman said about the missing female dancer, “This is that scornful piece, that scurvy hilding — that good-for-nothing — who gave her promise faithfully she would be here. I am talking about Cicely, the tailor’s daughter.

“The next gloves that I give her shall be made of cheap dogskin, if she fails me once more — you can tell everyone, Arcas, that she swore by wine and bread, aka the Eucharist, she would not break her promise.”

The schoolmaster said, “An eel and a woman, a learned poet says, unless by the tail and with your teeth you hold, will both fail.”

It is difficult to hold a live wet eel by the tail. The schoolmaster’s language brings to mind the image of holding a woman’s “tail” by one’s teeth. A proverb stated, “Who has a woman has an eel by the tail.”

He continued, “In manners, this was false position.”

He meant that this breach of etiquette was analogous to a false premise in logic.

The first countryman said, “May a fire-ill infect her!”

In this culture, “fire” was a slang word for “vagina.” In other words, the first countryman was saying, “May she suffer from a diseased vagina, aka suffer from a venereal disease.”

The first countryman continued, “Does she flinch now?”

The idiom “My ears are burning” means “I think someone is talking about me.” If Cicely, the tailor’s daughter, could hear what the first countryman was saying about her, she would flinch.

“What shall we determine to do, sir?” the third countryman asked.

“Nothing,” the schoolmaster said. “Our business is become a nullity, yes, and a woeful and a piteous nullity.”

A nullity is a no-event, a nothing.

The fourth countryman said, “Now, when the credit of our town lay on it, now to be moody and disagreeable, now to piss on the nettle!”

Nettles sting. Being careless while pissing on nettles could very well make someone moody and disagreeable.

The fourth countryman continued, “Go thy ways; get out of town! I’ll remember thee. I’ll fix thee!”

The jailor’s daughter, now mentally ill, walked over to the group. She sang this song:

The George Alow [name of a ship] came from the south,

From the coast of Barbary-a,

And there he met with brave gallants [sailors] of war,

By one, by two, by three-a.

“‘Well hailed, well hailed, you jolly gallants [sailors],

“‘And whither now are you bound-a?

“‘Oh, let me have your company

“‘Till I come to the sound-a.’”

She said, “There was three fools, who fell out and argued about an owlet,” and then she sang this song:

The one he said it was an owl,

The other he said nay,

The third he said it was a hawk,

And her bells were cut away.

In this culture, falconers tied small bells to the feet of hawks and falcons.

The third countryman said, “There’s a dainty madwoman, master, who comes in the nick of time, as mad as a March hare.”

The word “nick” means “the critical moment.”

Hares are mad in March because that is the mating season.

The third countryman continued, “If we can get her to dance, we are all right again. I promise that she’ll do the most marvelous gambols.”

“A madwoman?” the first countryman said. “We are made, boys.”

To be “made” is to be “assured of success.”

The schoolmaster said to the jailor’s daughter, “And are you mad, good woman?”

She replied, “I would be sorry else. Give me your hand.”


“So I can tell your fortune.”

She looked at his hand and said, “You are a fool. Count to ten.

“I have posed for him a task he cannot do. Buzz!”

One way of testing for mental competence is to have someone count to ten on his or her fingers.

She continued, “Friend, you must eat no white bread; if you do, your teeth will bleed extremely.”

Two more modern meanings of “to bleed white” are 1) to drain of resources, slowly or completely, and 2) to shed colorless, unhealthy blood (hyperbole). And if someone’s gums were diseased, red blood would be readily apparent on white bread.

She continued, “Shall we dance? I know you; you’re a tinker. Sirrah tinker, stop no more holes but what you should.”

One way to stop a hole is to fill it with a penis.

The schoolmaster said, “Dii boni!

The Latin words mean, “Good gods!”

He then asked, “A tinker, damsel?”

“Or a conjurer,” the jailer’s daughter said. “Raise me a Devil now, and let him play ‘Chi Passa’ on the bells and bones.”

“Raise me a Devil” can mean “Erect a penis for me.” Boccacio wrote a story (Third Day, Tenth Story) in his Decameron about putting the Devil in Hell. In the story, of course, Hell was a vagina, and the Devil was a penis.

Chi Passa Questa Strada” is Italian for “Who Passes Through This Street.” It is a dance tune.

Bones were used to make percussion music. A bone and two bells can refer to male genitalia.

The schoolmaster said to the second countryman, “Go, take her, and fluently persuade her to a peace.”

The schoolmaster wanted the second countryman to calm the jailer’s daughter so she could dance.

The schoolmaster continued, “Et opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira, nec ignis.

The Latin words of this incomplete sentence mean, “And I have completed a work of literature that neither Jove’s anger nor fire.”

These Latin words were from the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, except Ovid wrote “Iamque” instead of “Et.” This is the complete sentence: “Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.” In this sentence Ovid boasted that his fame would continue as a result of this literary masterpiece. The Latin words mean, “And I have now completed a work of literature that neither Jove’s anger nor fire nor steel nor time will destroy.” Jove is Jupiter, the King of the gods.

The schoolmaster meant that he had started but not yet completed a notable work of art.

The schoolmaster continued, “Strike up the music, and lead her in to the dance.”

The second countryman said, “Come, lass, let’s trip it. Let’s dance.”

“I’ll lead,” the jailer’s daughter said.

“Do, do!” the second countryman said.

“You have done it persuasively, and cunningly,” the schoolmaster said to the second countryman.

Horns sounded. Theseus and the other nobles were coming this way. There was no time for the jailer’s daughter to rehearse.

The schoolmaster said, “Away, boys! I hear the horns. Give me some room for solitary meditation, and listen for your cue.”

All but the schoolmaster hid themselves.

The schoolmaster said to himself, “Pallas Athena, inspire me!”

At the beginning of many epic poems, the epic poet asks a deity or deities for inspiration.

Theseus, Pirithous, Hippolyta, Emilia, and a train of others arrived.

Theseus said, “The stag went this way.”

“Stay, and edify!” the schoolmaster said.

By “edify,” the schoolmaster meant “be instructed.”

“What have we here?” Theseus asked.

“Some country entertainment, upon my life, sir,” Pirithous answered.

“Well, sir, go forward,” Theseus said to the schoolmaster. “Go ahead. We will ‘edify.’”

Attendants brought out a chair and some stools.

Theseus said, “Ladies, sit down. We’ll stay for the entertainment.”

Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia sat.

The schoolmaster said, “Thou doughty Duke, all hail! All hail, sweet ladies!”

Punning on the word “hail,” Theseus said quietly, “This is a cold beginning.”

The schoolmaster had referred to Theseus with the informal “thou,” which was taking a liberty, but May Day was a holiday and Theseus was normally a benevolent ruler, and so he let it pass.

The schoolmaster said, “If you but [show us] favor, our country pastime made is.

“We are a few of those collected here

“That ruder tongues distinguish [call] ‘villager.’

“And to say verity, and not to fable,

“We are a merry rout, or else a rabble,

“Or company, or by a figure, chorus,

“That before thy dignity will dance a morris.

“And I that am the rectifier [director] of all,

“By title pedagogus [educator], that let fall

“The birch upon the breeches of the small ones,

“And humble with a ferula [cane, using for beating an unruly student] the tall ones,

“Do here present this machine [show], or this frame [framework].

“And, dainty Duke, whose doughty [brave and persistent] dismal fame”

The schoolmaster meant by “doughty dismal fame” that Theseus’ fame was terrible and frightening to his enemies.

“From Dis to Daedalus, from post to pillar,”

Dis was the god of Hades, which Theseus had once visited and from which he had returned alive. Daedalus had constructed the labyrinth on Crete to house the half-man, half-bull monster called the Minotaur. Theseus had killed the Minotaur.

“Is blown abroad, help me, thy poor well-willer,

“And with thy twinkling eyes look right and straight

“Upon this mighty ‘Morr,’ of mickle [great] weight [importance] —

“‘Is’ now comes in, which being glued together

“Makes ‘Morris,’ and the cause [reason] that we came hither.”

The schoolmaster had displayed two placards. On one was written “Morr”; on the other was written “is.” Brought together, they spelled “Morris.”

“The body of our sport, of no small study,

“I first appear, though rude, and raw, and muddy,

“To speak before thy noble grace this tenner [tenor, aka content],

“At whose great feet I offer up my penner [case for carrying pens].”

Now he began to list the characters the dancers would be portraying:

“The next, the Lord of May and Lady bright,

“The Chambermaid and Servingman by night

“That seek out silent hanging;”

The chambermaid and servingman would seek at night an alcove behind a hanging that would hide their amorous activity.

“then mine Host

“And his fat Spouse, that welcomes to their cost

“The galled traveler, and with a beckoning

“Informs the tapster to inflame the reckoning;”

The host of the inn and his fat wife would invite the traveler to have a drink on the house, but the host would signal to the tapster to add the drink to the traveler’s bill.

“Then the beest-eating Clown;”

“Beest” is the milk that a cow gives immediately after giving birth. Some people regard beest as undrinkable, and other people use it in porridges.

“and next the Fool,

“The Bavian [baboon] with long tail and eke [also] long tool [penis],

Cum multis aliis [Latin for ‘and all the others’] that make a dance;

“Say ‘ay,’ and all shall presently advance.”

Theseus said, “Ay, ay, by all means, dear Domine.”

Domine is Latin for “schoolmaster.”

Pirithous said, “Produce! Lead them forward!”

Produce” is Latin for “Lead forward.”

The schoolmaster said, “Intrate, filii. Come forth and foot it. Dance.”

Intrate, filii” is Latin for “Come in, boys!”

Music played. The countrymen, countrywomen, and jailer’s daughter performed a morris dance.

The schoolmaster then made this speech:

“Ladies, if we have been merry

“And have pleased ye with a derry,

“And a derry and a down,

“Say the schoolmaster’s no clown.

“Duke, if we have pleased thee too

“And have done as good boys should do,

“Give us but a tree or twain [two]

“For a Maypole, and again,

“Ere [Before] another year run out,

“We’ll make thee laugh, and all this rout.”

Theseus said to the schoolmaster, “Take twenty, Domine.”

He then asked Hippolyta, “How are you, my sweetheart?”

She replied, “I have never been so pleased, sir.”

Emilia said, “It was an excellent dance, and as for the prefacing speech by the schoolmaster, I have never heard a better.”

Theseus said, “Schoolmaster, I thank you. One of you see to it that they are all rewarded.”

An attendant gave the schoolmaster money.

Pirithous also gave the schoolmaster money, saying, “And here’s something to paint your pole with.”

The pole was a May pole, but the schoolmaster could possibly use his share of the money to treat his sweetheart and get a part of his body wet.

Theseus said, “Now let’s return to our sports again. We have a stag to hunt.”

The schoolmaster made this speech:

“May the stag thou hunts stand long [and withstand the dogs],

“And thy dogs be swift and strong;

“May they kill him [the stag] without lets [hindrances],

“And the ladies eat his dowsets.”

“Dowsets” were the stag’s testicles; they were considered a delicacy.

The horns sounded, and Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia, Pirithous, and the train of attendants exited.

The schoolmaster said to the dancers, “Come, we are all made.”

The dance had been successful, and Theseus and Pirithous had tipped well.

The schoolmaster continued, “Dii deaeque omnes, you have danced marvelously, wenches.”

Dii deaeque omnes” is Latin for “All you gods and goddesses.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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