A Note on Terms of Art in Hamlet

The Shakespearean Authorship Society, 20, Autumn 1968, p. 1


SCHOLARS stress the fact that in his writings Shakespeare was aware of many or all of the meanings of the words that came up in his mind. This is shown most obviously in his puns and quibbles, which sometimes "come not single spies but in battalions." In a less marked form evidence is to be found in nearly every sentence he wrote. It has been said that the way he uses a word gives it the quality of a musical chord rather than a single note ; and the resonances created by the allusive hints of other meanings under the surface give great richness to the imagery and to the music of his poetry.

    This aspect of Shakespeare's language has been the subject of careful study by John Dover Wilson. In the Glossary to the New Cambridge edition of Hamlet he defines the ordinary meanings of words which offer difficulty to the present‑day reader, and also where appropriate their secondary or remoter meanings. In a proportion of the cases, by my calculation 361 out of the 952 words or phrases in the Glossary ‑ I refer to the second edition (1936 ‑ reprin­ted 1964) ‑ the primary or the secondary meaning of a word is of a technical kind, and indicates Shakespeare's acquaintance with a specialised vocabulary. If we catalogue these words of technical usage, or terms of art, we can get a clue to Shakespeare's specialised interests and his fields of expertise. We must call it expertise, for often the meaning is recondite and no one has yet claimed that Shakespeare goes wrong in his use of words, or has ever yet used a word mistaking its meaning.

    The following list has been compiled from the Glossary to Dover Wilson's Hamlet. It does not include technical words to be found in the play but not in the Glossary (such as those in the military metaphor quoted above), since we are relying on Dover Wilson as our impartial judge. We are concerned to throw alight on the mind of Shakespeare ; he was concerned to deal with the words only on their own merits. The sceptical reader will be able to assure himself, by referring to the Glossary, whether or not the words cited below have been correctly chosen and classified. There are 361 of them, but 10 appear twice and one ("assay") three times, to make up the 373 entries in the following list

LAW (42) : action of battery, arrest, assigns, assurance, bands, canon, cess, circumstance, co‑mart, contraction, conveyance, crowner, delated, document, enacture, fee, find, fine, impawned, implorators, indentures, inheritor, jointress, law of writ and the liberty, lie, passages of proof, probation, process, pronounce, purgation, quest, quietus, recognizance, recovery, sat on, se offendendo, seized of, sergeant, statute, uncharge, vouch, voucher.

MEDICINE (29) : affection, apoplexed, appliance, artere, canker, cataplasm, complexion, discourse, distemper, ecstasy, faculty, hectic, idle, imposthume, infusion, kibe, lazar‑like, nerve, plurisy, pocky, potion, purgation, purging, splenitive, tent, tetter, watch.

STAGE and DRAMA (17) : argument, chorus, dumb‑show, forest of feathers, groundling, Hercules and his load, humorous man, inhibition, jig, jigmaker, mute, part, periwig‑pated, quality, row, share, vice.

ARMS and MILITARY ARTS (26): assay, back, beaver, blast in proof, bodkin, bore, cap‑a‑pe, carriage, carry it away, close, engener, false fire, frontier, head, list, murdering piece, mutine, partisan, petar, platform, powers, proof, proportions, sling, target, tickle o' th' sere.

NAUTICAL (8) : appointment, bilboe, card, flaw, go about, recover the wind of, sweepstake, yaw.

HUSBANDRY and CRAFTS (17) : canker, capon, coil, compost, felly, hawk and handsaw, journeyman, loose, mUch, mortised, nave, o'er‑teemed, sliver, stithy, timbered, unyoke, winnowed.

HORTICULTURE (3) : button, inoculate, Provincial roses.

TRADE and FINANCE (23) : audit, broker, count, cracked within the ring, diet, escot, farm, gaged, gild, grained, inventorially, investments, market, mart, matter, meed, reckon, scruple, set, sellingly, thrift, trade, truster.

STATECRAFT (12) : article, colleagued, crownet, entreatment, espials, impress, innovation, pane, practice, process, service, statist.

COURT LIFE (15): addition, answer, chopine, comply, countenance, duty, exercises, gentry, livery, lobby, observer, pardon, progress, Switzers, truncheon.

MYTHOLOGY (18) : chameleon, Damon, hebona, Hecate, Hypenion, Hyrcanian beast, Lethe, Nemean lion, Nero, Niche, pelican, Pelion, Pyrrhus, quintessence, Roscius, Tellus, Termagant, Vulcan.

The BIBLE (1) : Jephthah.

HERALDRY (8) : addition, blazon, difference, gales, hatchment, heraldy, ore, trick.

RHETORIC and LOGIC (8) : argal, circumstance, collection, gather, ger­mane, proposer, quiddity, quillity.

ASTROLOGY, THEOLOGY, DEMONOLOGY (11): assume, audit, burning zone, conjunctive, disaster, philosophy, retrograde, sphere, star, strike, take.

MUSIC (11) : chanson, cracked within the ring, fret, kettle, recorder, rhapsody, stop, touch, trumpet, ventage, wheel.

UNIVERSITY SLANG (2): buz, keep.

FENCING (13) : answer, bare, carriage, defence, foil, hangers, motion, pass, push, quit, scrimer, stuck, unbated.

ARCHERY (4) : bent, blank, curb, upshot.

BOWLS (2) : assay, rub.

HUNTING and the CHASE (14) : Barbary horse, blood, cast beyond one­self, cote, coupter, cry, cry on, gambol, havoc, quarry, pricked on, unkennel, windlass, withers.

FALCONRY (5) : aery, check at, hawk and handsaw (hernshaw), pitch, unreclaimed.

FIELD SPORTS, OTHER (4) : angle, limed, springe, toil.

NATURE and WILD LIFE (15) : bevy, carp, chough, couplets, cross‑flower, disclose, eyas, lapwing, long purple, paddock, porpentine, rack, water‑fly, wharf, woodcock.

DOMESTIC LIFE (30) : candied, changeling, clouts, distempered, drunk asleep, eisel, enseamed, fardel, fust, gib, impasted, John‑a‑dreams, larded, mazzard, mess, napkin, o'er‑leaven, posset, posy, ravel out, rouse, russet, sallets, sea‑gown, season, stoup, tables, tarre, valanced, weeds.

RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE (20) : anchor, anoint, bringing home, burial, canonized, cerements, crants, exercise, hearsed, mum, laying‑in, matin, obse­quious, requiem, sables, service, strewments, unaneled, unction, unhouseled.

POPULAR GAMES (6) : assay, hide fox and all after, hobby‑horse, hoodman blind, loggats, o'er‑crow.

UNCLASSIFIED (9) : carbuncle, Dansker, down‑gyved, frame, metal, mineral, pioneer, stallion, union.

    If this list can be regarded as representative of the terms of art employed by Shakespeare, then I think we get a strong impression of a man with a very wide range of interest, knowledge and experience, more familiar with aristocratic and court life than with the life of the people. His recreations and attainments conform better with those of a nobleman than a petit bourgeois of town or country. His knowledge of nature is mainly of game animals. His profes­sional interests are concentrated in the law and military arts; his uses of technicalities connected with the life of the stage are actually less in number than the medical words he introduces.

     The results of this little enquiry seem to the present writer of sufficient interest to warrant a continuation along the same line, in which other of Shakespeare’s plays will be examined.