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A wisp, adds Nares, seems to have been the badge of the scolding woman in the ceremony of Skimmington;' an allusion to which is given in a "Dialogue between John and Jone, striving who shall wear the breeches," in the "Pleasures of Poetry," cited by Malone:


'Good, gentle Jone, with-holde thy handes,

This once let me entreat thee,
And make me promise never more,

That thou shalt mind to beat me:

For fear thou wear the wispe, good wife,
And make our neighbours ride."

In Nash's" Pierce Pennilesse" (1593) there is also an amusing allusion to it: "Why, thou errant butter-whore, thou cotquean and scrattop of scolds, wilt thou never leave afflicting a dead carcasse? continually read the rhetorick lecture of Ramme-alley? a wispe, a wispe, you kitchen-stuffe wrangler."

1 Skimmington was a burlesque ceremony in ridicule of a man beaten by his wife, See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," vol. ii. pp. 191, 192.



IN the present chapter are collected together the chief proverbs either quoted or alluded to by Shakespeare. Many of these are familiar to most readers, but have gained an additional interest by reason of their connection with the poet's writings. At the same time, it may be noted that very many of Shakespeare's pithy sayings have, since his day, passed into proverbs, and have taken their place in this class of literature. It is curious to notice, as Mrs. CowdenClarke remarks,' how "Shakespeare has paraphrased some of our commonest proverbs in his own choice and elegant diction." Thus, " Make hay while the sun shines" becomes "The sun shines hot; and if we use delay,

Cold biting winter mars our hoped-for hay,"

a statement which applies to numerous other proverbial sayings.

“A black man is a jewel in a fair woman's eyes." In the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (v. 2), the following passage is an amusing illustration of the above:

"Thurio. What says she to my face?
Proteus. She says it is a fair one.

Thurio. Nay then, the wanton lies; my face is black.
Proteus. But pearls are fair; and the old saying is,
Black men are pearls in beauteous ladies' eyes."

In "Titus Andronicus" (v. 1) there is a further allusion to this proverb, where Lucius says of Aaron,

"This is the pearl that pleas'd your empress' eye."

1 "Shakespeare Proverbs," 1858.

"A beggar marries a wife and lice." So in "King Lear" (iii. 2), Song:

"The cod-piece that will house,

Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse;

So beggars marry many.”

Thus it is also said: "A beggar payeth a benefit with a louse."

"A cunning knave needs no broker." This old proverb is quoted by Hume, in “2 Henry VI.” (i. 2):


'A crafty knave does need no broker."

"A curst cur must be tied short." With this proverb we may compare what Sir Toby says in "Twelfth Night” (iii. 2), to Sir Andrew: "Go, write it in a martial hand; be curst and brief."

"A drop hollows the stone," or "many drops pierce the stone." We may compare "3 Henry VI." (iii. 2), " much rain wears the marble," and also the messenger's words (ii. 1), when he relates how "the noble Duke of York was slain :"

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Environed he was with many foes;

And stood against them, as the hope of Troy

Against the Greeks, that would have enter'd Troy.
But Hercules himself must yield to odds;

And many strokes, though with a little axe,

Hew down and fell the hardest-timber'd oak.

"A finger in every pie." So, in "Henry VIII.” (i. 1), Buckingham says of Wolsey:

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To the same purport is the following proverb: "He had

a finger in the pie when he burnt his nail off."


A fool's bolt is soon shot." Quoted by Duke of Orleans in Henry V." (iii. 7). With this we may compare the French: "De fol juge breve sentence.""

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"A friend at court is as good as a penny in the purse." So, in "2 Henry IV.” (v. 1), Shallow says: “a friend i̇' the court is better than a penny in purse." The French equivalent of this saying is: "Bon fait avoir ami en cour, car le procès en est plus court."

"A little pot's soon hot." Grumio, in "Taming of the Shrew" (iv. 1), uses this familiar proverb: "were not I a little pot, and soon hot, my very lips might freeze to my teeth," etc.

"A pox of the devil" ("Henry V.," iii. 7).

"A smoky chimney and a scolding wife are two bad companions." There are various versions of this proverb. Ray gives the following: "Smoke, raining into the house, and a scolding wife, will make a man run out of doors." Hotspur, in "I Henry IV.” (iii. 1), says of Glendower:

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"A snake lies hidden in the grass." This, as Mr. Green' remarks, is no unfrequent proverb, and the idea is often made use of by Shakespeare. Thus, in "2 Henry VI.” (iii. 1), Margaret declares to the attendant nobles:

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Henry my lord is cold in great affairs,

Too full of foolish pity: and Gloster's show
Beguiles him, as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers,
Or as the snake, roll’d in a flowering bank,
With shining checker'd slough, doth sting a child,
That for the beauty thinks it excellent."

Lady Macbeth (i. 5) tells her husband:

"look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under't."

Juliet ("Romeo and Juliet," iii. 2) speaks of:

"Serpent heart, hid with a flowering face."

1 "Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers," 1870, p. 341.

"A staff is quickly found to beat a dog." Other versions of this proverb are: "It is easy to find a stick to beat a dog;" "It is easy to find a stone to throw at a dog."1 So, in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 1), Gloster says:

"I shall not want false witness to condemn me,
Nor store of treasons to augment my guilt;
The ancient proverb will be well effected,—
A staff is quickly found to beat a dog."

"A wise man may live anywhere." In "Richard II." (i. 3), John of Gaunt says:


'All places that the eye of heaven visits,

Are to a wise man ports and happy havens."

"A woman conceals what she does not know." Hence Hotspur says to his wife, in "I Henry IV." (ii. 3):

Constant you are,

But yet a woman: and for secrecy,

No lady closer; for I well believe

Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know,-
And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate."

"All men are not alike" ("Much Ado About Nothing," iii. 5).

"All's Well that Ends Well."

"As lean as a rake." So in "Coriolanus" (i. 1), one of the citizens says: "Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes." So Spenser, in his "Fairy Queen" (bk. ii. can. II):

His body leane and meagre as a rake."

This proverb is found in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (i. 289):


'Al so lene was his hors as is a rake."

"As thin as a whipping-post" is another proverb of the same kind.

1 See Kelly's "Proverbs of All Nations," 1870, p. 157.

2 Halliwell-Phillipps's "Handbook Index to Shakespeare," p. 390, under Proverbs.

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