Games and Sports in Shakespeare

Paul Brewster

F.F. Commuinications, 72, (177), 1959, pp. 3-26;
Reprinted in E.M. Avedon & B. Sutton-Smith,
The Study of Games, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1971, 27-47;
and Reprint Edition: New York: R.E. Krieger Publishing Co. Inc., 1979.

[Page 27] The universality of Shakespeare has long been axiomatic; in a sense he has become "all things to all men." Scholars have noted his facile and accurate use of the language of medicine, of law, of philosophy; and so familiar is he with these fields and with their idioms that he has been thought a physician, a lawyer, or a philosopher. As a recent Shakespeare scholar and critic puts it: "One by one all the philosophies have been discovered in Shakespeare's works, and he has been charged - both as virtue and weakness - with having no philosophy. The lawyer believes he must have been a lawyer, the musician a musician, the Catholic a Catholic, the Protestant a Protestant."1 The fallacy in such reasoning lies, of course, in the unwarranted assumption that an intimate knowledge of the language peculiar to a profession or an occupation can be acquired only through an active participation in it.

The fact that Shakespeare mentions nearly fifty different games and sports in the plays does not mean that he was a folklorist or a specialist in games any more than his familiarity with legal procedure proves him to have been a lawyer. Nor is it necessary to assume that he was a sports enthusiast. No doubt he did participate in some, perhaps all, of the games and sports mentioned. However, even had he not done so, he would certainly not have been unaware of their existence. Here, as in other respects, Shakespeare was very much a man of his time and thoroughly conversant with what was going on in it.

[Page 28] As will be noted, the allusions take different forms. In some instances the dramatist gives us what is almost a word picture of the sport in question:

Or as a bear; encompass'd round with dogs,
Who having pinched a few and made them cry,
The rest stand all aloof, and bark at him.

Sometimes the mention of the game appears in the form of a figure of speech, usually a simile or a metaphor:

As one would set up a top
I am tied to the stake, and I must stand the course.

In still other cases there appears only the name of the game or sport or some term used in connection with the playing of it:

Let's to billiards
Pitch, rub, bias, etc.

The act and scene divisions used here are those of Craig2; the abbreviations employed for titles of the plays are those suggested by the Shakespeare Quarterly.


This sport held first place during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, reaching its zenith under the latter, who was himself a fine archer and who expected his subjects also to become proficient with the bow. To this end, every male below the age of sixty was compelled to shoot with it, and fathers were required by law to instruct their sons in its use as soon as the latter reached the age of seven. Both Henry VII and Henry VIII favored the longbow over the crossbow, restricting the use of the latter by limiting the use of it to those holding property valued at three hundred marks, and by imposing a fine of ten pounds for each shot unlawfully fired.

By the end of the Elizabeth's reign archery had declined into a mere healthful pastime, practised only by those who enjoyed it. However, this decline was not owing to any lack of interest or encouragement on the part of Elizabeth, who was herself a skilled and enthusiastic bowman and who at one time organized a corps of archers from among the ladies of [Page 29] the court. It was simply that the musket had arrived and the bow was no longer a national asset.4

The sport is alluded to in Lear I.i.145 ("The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft"), 160-161 ("See better, Lear, and let me still remain The true blank of thine eye"); Much I.i.42 (" ... and challenged him at the bird-bolt"), 259 ("bottle", a basket of wicker to hold the cat used as a target in shooting matches); II.i.254 ("man at a mark")", Shrew V.ii.186 ("Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white"); L.L.L. IV.i.l35-136 ("Wide 0' the bow hand! i' faith, your hand is out." "Indeed, I must shoot nearer, or he'll ne'er hit the clout"); 3 H VI I.i.29 ("butt"); Oth. III.iv.l28 ("blank"); Romeo II.iv.l6 ("pin"); W.T. II.iii.5 ("blank"); 2 H IV III.ii.48-53 (" ... a' drew a good bow, and dead! a' shot a fine shoot; John a Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead! a' would have clapped i' the clout at twelve score; and carried you a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man's heart good to see"); Ham. IV.iii.47 ("bent").


This had been a popular sport in the Middle Ages 7, and retained its popularity well into the reign of Charles II. Under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, special bears were bred for it, and dogs could be commandeered by the Master of Bears. Not only bears but also donkeys, horses, and other animals were baited.8

Allusions to bear-baiting appear in the following plays: Wives I.i. 297-309 ("Why do your dogs bark so? be there bears i' the town? ..."); Twel. II.v.8 ("... you know he brought me out o’ favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here"); W. T. IV.iii.1og (" ... he haunts wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings"): 3 H. VI II.i.15-l7 ("Or as a bear, encompass'd [Page 30] round with dogs, Who having pinched a few and made them cry, The rest stand all aloof, and bark at him"); Caesar IV.i.48--49 (" ... for we are at the stake, And bay'd about with many enemies"); Macb. V.vii.1l-12 ("They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, But, bear-like, I must fight the course"); Twel. II I.i.129-130 ("Have you not set mine honour at the stake, And baited it with all the unmuzzled thoughts That tyrannous heart can think?"); I.iii.96 ("I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting"); H. V. III.vii. 152 ("Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear and have their heads crushed like rotten apples!"); 2 H. VI V.i.l44 ("Call hither to the stake my two brave bears, That with the very shaking of their chains They may astonish these fell-lurking curs: ... Oft have I seen a hot o'er weening cur Run back and bite because he was withheld; Whom being sufler'd with the bear's fell paw, Hath clapp'd his tail between his legs and cried . . .").


Billiards followed shovel-board as one of the most popular pastimes. It was played on oblong tables having three pockets on each side and being railed around the top with a ledge stuffed with cotton. At one end of the table was a small ivory arch called the "port" and at the other a peg known as the "king." The sticks used were tipped with ivory at one end, and only two balls were used in the game. The object was to drive the ball through the "port" and to touch the "king" without kocking it over. Fines were imposed for breaking either. A variant, known as "trucks," were played on a larger table having ten pockets on either side.!10

The game is mentioned in Antony II.v.4 ("Let's to billiards"). Actually, however, it was not in existence at the time of this play.


This very ancient game, still popular, is mentioned in Ham. III. iv. 76-77 ("What devil was't that thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman blind?") and All's W. IV.iii.138 ("Hoodman comes!"). [Page 31]


Bowling, like archery, was under Henry VIII subject to restrictive laws. The first excuse advanced for these was that it interfered with the practice of archery. In 1511 the King termed it "a harmful pastime," and some twenty-five years later, when he himself was a keen exponent of the game, spoke against it even more strongly and took measures to suppress it among the common people. These restrictive laws were not repealed until the time of Victoria, but were overlooked by Elizabeth, in whose reign bowling was a common sport in the innyards.

In the early form of the game, two players, each with a ball, would stand a certain distance apart. After they had placed cones on the ground by their feet, they would take turns rolling a ball along the ground in an attempt to knock over the opponent's cone. Later, the two cones were replaced by a single ball, the "jack," at which the players aimed alternately. 13

Allusions to the game occur in the following plays: Cym. II.i.l (" ... when I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away!"); L.L.L. IV.i.139-141 ("She's too hard for you at pricks, sir; challenge her to [Page 32] bowls,” “I fear too much rubbing”); V,ii,587 (“He is a marvellous good neighbour, faith, and a very good bowler”); Lear II.ii.l60-161 (“Whose disposition, all the world knows, Will not be rubb'd nor stopp'd”), R. II III.iv.3-5 (“Madam, we'll play at bowls,” “Twill make me think the world is full of rubs, And that my fortune runs against the bias,”); Ham. III.i. 65 (“Ay, there's the rub”): Shrew IV.v.24 (“.... thus the bowl should run, And not unluckily against the bias”); Troi. III.ii.52 (“So, so; rub on, and kiss the mistress”); Cor. V.ii.19 (“ ... nay, sometimes, Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground, I have stumbled past the throw”); H. V, II,ii,188 (“We doubt not now But every rub is smoothed on our way”).


This is a children's game in which the players pitch cherry stones (seeds, pebbles, etc.) at a small hole in the ground.15 It is mentioned in only one of the plays, Twel. III.iv.129 (What man!’tis not for gravity to play at cherry-pit with Satan”).


Invented in northwest India, probably about A.D. 570, chess spread to France by 1070 and was being played in England before 1100.17 Mention of it occurs in Temp. V.i.172 (Stage direction: Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, playing at chess) and A.Y.L. V.iv.85 (“counter-check,” a metaphor from the game).


Henry VIII had his private cock-pit at his palace at Whitehall, and so generally loved was the sport that contests were held even on board ship. Its popularity was even greater in the Restoration and after.19 The sport is alluded to in Antony II.iii.35 (“His cocks do win the battle still of mine ...”).


Dicing was widely prevalent in Elizabeth's time, as it has been in every period, and the allusions to it in the literature are many. However, [Page 34] it appears not to have reached its peak until the eighteenth century, when, as Trevelyan writes,"Society ... was one vast casino. On whatever pretext, and under whatsoever circumstances, half a dozen people of fashion found themselves together . . . the box was sure to be rattling, and the cards were being cut and shuffied."21 Allusions appear in All's W. II.iii.85 (“I had rather be in this choice than throw ames-ace for my life”); Wives I.iii.94 (“fullam,” a kind of false dice loaded at the corner); 1 H. IV IV.i.45-48 (“ ... were it good To set the exact wealth of all our states All at one cast? to set so rich a main On the nice hazard of one doubtful hour?”); Merch. II.i.32 (“If Hercules and Lichas play at dice ...”); W. T. I.ii.132 (“ ... false As dice are to be wished by one that fixes no bourn ‘twixt his and mine”); IV.iii.27 (“die”); Antony II.iii.35 (“ ... the very dice obey him”); H. V IV.v.8 (“Be these the wretches that we play'd at dice for?”); IV, prologue, 19 (“Proud of their numbers and secure in soul, The confident and over lusty French Do the low-rated English play at dice”); Othello IV.ii.132 (“cogging," cheating with loaded dice); R. III V.iv.10 (“Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die”); L.L.L.I.ii.48 (“You know how much the grosse summe of deuce-ace amounts to ... which the base vulgar call three”); .ii. 232 (“ ... well run, dice!”); Cym. II.iii.2 (“Your lordship is the most patient man in losse, the most coldest that ever tum'd up ace”).


This is not so much a game as what Strutt calls it, “a mere Christmas gambol with a great log of wood.”23 Mention of it occurs in only one of the plays, Romeo I.iv.41 (“If thou art dun, we'll draw thee from the mire”).


That hawking was one of the favorite Elizabethan sports is amply attested by the frequent references to it in the literature of the period. [Page 35] Among those in the Shakespeare plays are the following; Ham. I.v.115 (“Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come, bird, come”); II.ii.449 (“We'll e'en to't like French falconers, fly at anything we see”); Twel. II.v.124 (“staniel,” an inferior kind of hawk); 125 (“checks,” leaves quarry for another bird); III.i.71-72 (“And, like the haggard, check at every feather that comes before his eye”); Temp. IV.i.206 (“ ... shall hoodwink this mischance”); Romeo I.iv.21 (“pitch”); III.ii.14 (“hood” ... “unmann'd”); Caesar I.ii.7B (“pitch”); 2 H. VI II.i.1-12 (“ ... for flying at the brook, I saw not better sport these seven years' day; Yet, by your leave, the wind was very high; And, ten to one, old Joan had not gone out ... “But what a point, my lord, your falcon made, And what a pitch she flew above the rest! ...”); H. V III.vii.121 (“hooded valeur”), IV.i.1ll-112 (“ ... and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing”); Shrew, Induction, ii.45-46 (“Dost thou love hawking? thou hast hawks will soar Above the morning lark ...”); Othello IILiii.21O (“seel," sewing eyelids of hawk together), 260 (“haggard,” an inferior hawk), 261 (“jesses," straps for fastening legs of trained hawk); Antony III.xii.112 (“seel”); 1 H. VI II.ill.55 (“pitch”); 2 H. VI I.i.5 (“point”); Romeo III.ii.14 (“hood”) 3 H. VI Li.47 (“shake his bells”); Tit. 1.1.14 (“pitch”).


This is a gambling game, sometimes known also as Pricking at the Belt (or Girdle).. A leather belt was folded intricately so that one fold appeared to be in the middle. A player thrusting a knife or a skewer into this fold would think that he had made the belt fast to the table. Wagers were made as to whether the belt would be fast or loose, hence the name. The game is mentioned in L.L.L. III.i.104 (“To sell a bargain well is as cunning as fast and loose”); Antony IV. xii.27-28 (“ ... like a right gipsy, hath at fast and loose, Beguiled me to the very heart of loss”).


There are allusions to this sport in 2 H. IV III.ii.70 (“backsword mann”); Romeo II.iv.20-27 (“He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps [Page 36] time, distance, and proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause: ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverse! the hail”); Ham. IV.vii.96-103; V.ii.264; L.L.L. V.i.62 (“venue,” a thrust).


As early as the Middle Ages, football had been banned by Edward II and other medieval kings because of the danger to life and limb, and both Henry VIII and Elizabeth did all they could to stamp it out completely, but with only partial success. Sir Thomas Elyot (1531) saw in it “nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurte,” and Stubbe, writing several decades later, speaks of broken backs and necks, of a player's hitting another over the heart with his elbow with the deliberate intention of killing or maiming him.28 Nevertheless the game continued to be popular (even among women), and rules for playing were eventually drawn up so that the hazards were lessened. Football is mentioned in two of the plays: Lear I.iv.94 (“ ... you base foot-ball player”) and Errors I.ii.83-84 (“Am I so round with you as you with me, That like a football you do spurn me thus?”).


This is a very simple guessing-game played by children. One player takes a small object in one hand, closes both, and then, holding them out toward another child, challenges him to guess which of the hands contains the object. If the guess is correct, the two exchange roles; if not, the game continues as before. The sole allusion appears in Lear IV.i.155 (“Hark, in thine ear; change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?”). [Page 37]


This is a gambling game, played with two dice. Any number of players could participate.31 There is an allusion to it in H. V. III.viii.93 (“Who will go to hazard with me for twenty prisoners”).


References to this game appear in the following plays: Ham. IV.ii.32 (“Hide fox, and all after”) and L.L.L. IV.iii.78 (“All hid, all hid; an old infant play”).


Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth were ardent huntsmen, the former sometimes wearing out as many as ten horses in the course of a day and the latter being noted for her skill in bringing down driven deer with a bow. Both monarchs indulged also in the hunting of otter. Although the hunting of fallow and red deer was the prerogative of royalty and the nobility, those of the lower class were free to hunt the hare and other small animals.33 Some critics have cited Shakespeare's vivid descriptions of hunting scenes, and more particularly, his giving of names to the dogs (Echo, Silver, etc.) as evidence of his keen personal interest in the sport. Allusions are to be found in A.Y.L. IV.ii.l; V.iv.lll (“He uses his folly like a stalking-horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit”); Merch. I.ii.22 (“... such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple”); 3 H. VI II.v.129 (“Edward and Richard, like a brace of greyhounds Having the fearful flying hare in sight …Are at our backs... “); Dream IV.i.110; Tit. II.iii.25 (“The hunt is up…” “I have dogs, my lord, will rouse the proudest panther in the chase, And climb the highest promontory top.” “And I have horse will follow where the game Makes way, and run like swallows o'er the plain”); Temp. I.ii.81 (“... trash for over-topping,” checking a hound by [Page 38] hanging a weight to his neck to prevent his running too far ahead of the rest of the pack); Much II.iii.95 (“stalk on, stalk on; the fowl sits”); 2 H. IV I.ii 103 (“You hunt counter”); Ham. IV.i.110 (“counter”); Errors IV.ii.39 (“runs counter”); Shrew, Induction, i.14 (“Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds: Brach Merriman, the poor cur is emboss'd, and couple Clowder with the deep-mouth'd brach. Saw'st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good At the hedge-corner, in the coldest fault? I would not lose the dog for twenty pound." "Why, Belman is as good as he, my lord; He cried upon it at the merest loss And twice today pick'd out the dullest scent; Trust me, I take him for the better dog.” “Thou art a fool; if Echo were as fleet, I would esteem him worth a dozen such. But sup them well and look unto them all: To-morrow I intend to hunt again”).


This old and widespread game is mentioned in only one of the plays, H. V. V.ii.140 (“If I could win a lady at leap-frog ...”).


Loggats, sometimes known also as Kayles (from the French quilles), was played much like Ninepins. A number of pins were set up and the player threw a cudgel to knock them down.36 The game was prohibited by Henry VIII. This only allusion to it occurs in Ham. V.i.100 (“Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with them?”).


This was more of a scramble than a game. A group of boys threw an unfortunate comrade on the ground, piled on top of him, and called out, “Bags to the mill!”37 There is a mention of it in L.L.L. Iv.iii.8l. [Page 39]


Allusions to the Morris occur in All's W. II.ii.25 ("a morris for Mayday"); H. V II.iv.24-25 C ... a Whitsun morris-dance"); 2 H. VI III.i.365 ("I have seen Him caper upright like a wild Morisco, Shaking the bloody darts as he his bells"); and Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen V.ii.51 ("He'll dance the Morris twenty miles an hour").


This appears to have been merely a scramble among boys for some object thrown upon the ground. The single allusion to it is in Antony III. xiii.91 ("Like boys unto a muss ...").


This game was played either on the ground or on a board or table. A playing board was about eight inches square, with twenty-four holes in it. Each player was provided with nine wooden pegs (of different shapes or colors), and the object was to get three pegs in a straight line. In early times this was a favorite game with shepherds, who played it on the ground with stones. The name is from the French merellies or mereaux, which was later corrupted to morrals and then to morris. The prints reproduced in Strutt indicate that the English game is at least as old as the fourtenth century.39 Perhaps the earliest Nine Men's Morris or Nine Holes diagrams known are those incised on roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Thebes. The erection of this temple was begun in the reign of Rameses I (1400-1366 B. C.) and completed in that of Seti (1366-1333 B. C.)40 A form of the game was carried into Spain by the Moors, and thence it has spread over practically the whole world. There were also Three Men's Morris, Five (or Six) Men's Morris, Eleven Men's Morris, and Twelve Men's Morris. A related game is Noughts and Crosses, now played principally by children. Only one allusion to the game appears in the plays, that in Dream II.i.98 ("The nine men's morris is filled up with mud"). [Page 40]


This was a card game somewhat similar to cribbage. It appears to have been most popular with the lower classes. Mention of it occurs only in Troi. Iii.212 (“Will he give you the nod?”)


Novum was a game of dice, played by five or six persons. The correct name is Novem quinque, since the two principal throws were nine and five. It is alluded to in L.L.L. V.ii.546 (“Abate throw at novum”).


This was a game of dice somewhat resembling the French vingt-et-un. The only reference to it is in Shrew Lii.32 (“... two and thirty, a pip out”).


Primero was another card game, very popular in the time of Elizabeth. There are many allusions to it: Wives IV.v.101 (“I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero”), H. V III V.i.7 (“I... left him at primero with the Duke of Suffolk”). The expression “to set up one's rest” (i.e. to stake all), which derives from this game, appears frequently: Lear I.i.126 (“I loved her most, and thought to set my rest On her kind nursery”); H. V II.i.18 (“That is my rest”); Dream IV.iii.27 (“... he that [Page 41] sets up his rest ...”); Merch. (“I have set up my rest to run away”); Romeo IV.V.6 (“The County Paris hath set up his rest ...”); All's W. II.i.138 (“Since you set up your rest 'gainst remedy ...”).


It is not always possible to know to what kind of Base an allusion refers. In the true Prison Base the members of one group try to make prisoners of those of the other, and keep them in a special place. They can be released by their comrades if the latter are able to approach near enough to touch them. It is probable that some of the passages mentioning the game refer to other forms of it, of which there are several. The game is mentioned in the following plays: T.G.V. I.ii.97 (“Indeed, I bid the base for Proteus”); Cym. V.iii.20 (“...lads more like to run the country base than to commit such slaughter”); and in Venus 1. 303 (“bid the wind a base”).


This, one of the few intellectual amusements of the time, is somewhat reminiscent of the flyting of an earlier period and of the riddle-contests and wit-combats which were so popular a little later. The object here is to outlast an opponent in quoting proverbs having some bearing on the topic which elicited the first. Perhaps the best example in Shakespeare is that in H. V III.vii. 123-132. [Page 42]


In this game, known also as Blowpoint, the player tries to push (or to blow) his pin so that it will lie across that of his opponent. The only mention of it occurs in L.L.L. IV.iii.169 (“And Nestor plays at pushpin with the boys”).


Although never as popular as Cock-fighting, this sport was occasionally indulged in by the nobility. The birds were enclosed in hoops to make them fight. The only allusion to this pastime is that in Antony II.iii.36(“. . . and his quails ever Beat mine, inhoop'd, at odds”).


The original quintain seems to have been merely the trunk of a tree; later it consisted of a wooden image (usually of a Turk or a Saracen mounted on a pivot. If the contestant failed to strike it on the nose or in the center of the forehead, it swung around and hit him with a wooden sword or a club. The game was practised both on foot and on horseback. Another form was that in which a mast bearing a shield was set up in the river bed, and the contestant, in a boat carried toward it by the tide attempted to strike the shield. A failure resulted in his falling from the boat into the river, whence he would be pulled out by watchers stationed nearby for the purpose.48 The sport is mentioned in two plays: A.Y.L. I.ii.261-263(“My better parts Are all thrown down, and that which here stands up Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block”) and Shrew I.i.145 (“He that rum fastest gets the ring”).49 [Page 43]


One of the speeches of Falstaff contains an allusion to this game: 2 H. IV II.iv.266 (“... a' plays at quoits well...”). The word quoit appears also in line 206 but as a verb (“Quoit him down, Bardolph, like a shove-groat shilling”).


According to Hazlitt's edition of Brand's Popular Antiquities (II, 544), “Shoeing the Wild Mare ... was a diversion among our ancestors, more particularly intended for the young, and that the Wild Mare was simply a youth so called, who was allowed a certain start, and who was pursued by his companions with the object of being shoed [sic], if he did not succeed in outstripping them.”52 The Gaelic game of the same title, Crudhadh an Capuill Bhain, was played quite differently: A beam is suspended from the roof by two ropes of about equal length, and high enough from the ground to prevent anyone astride of it touching the floor with his feet. The feat consists in keeping your seat on this white mare without touching the ropes. When it is called “shoeing the mare,” the rider is supposed to be the smith, and has a piece of wood in his hand to drive in the nails of the shoes, striking the lower part of the beam four times eight blows. He who could complete the shoeing of the horse without being thrown off was of course a master of smithcraft.53 The term Wild Mare is sometimes applied also to the game of Seesaw.54 This game is mentioned only once in Shakespeare, in 2 H. IV II.iv.268 (“... and rides the wild-mare with the boys ...”). [Page 44]


In this game a shilling was balanced on the edge of a table and the struck with the palm of the hand into one of the numbered squares into which the top of the table was divided. Mention of it occurs in a line of 2 H. IV II.iv.206 (“Quoit him down Bardolph, like a shove-groat shilling”).


The game of Shovelboard was played on a table about three feet wide and some thirty feet long. The players, usually two, stood at one end At the opposite end a line was drawn parallel to the edge and three or four inches from it, and another line about four feet back of the first. The counter, a flat metal plate, was shoved by the players. If a piece fell off the edge, it did not count, nor did a push count unless the piece passed the first line. If it balanced on the edge of the table, it counted three points; if it stopped between the farther line and the edge, it counted two, if between the two lines, it counted one. Play was for eleven points. This was one of the favorite games of Henry VIII. The sole allusion to the game in Shakespeare occurs in Wives I.i.159 (“...two Edward shovel-boards”).57


This game, played usually during the Christmas season, consisted in “snapping” with the mouth the raisins or plums in a bowl of burning brandy. There are the following allusions to it: L.L.L. V.i.45 (“thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon”); W.T. III.iii.l00 (“ to see how the sea flap-dragoned it”); 2 H. IV II.iv.268 (“... and drinks off candles' ends for flap-dragons”).


This is a marble game, usually played by two. The first shoots a marble to any distance he desires. The second then shoots in an attempt [Page 45] to hit the first player's marble or to get close enough to it to span the distance between them. If he succeeds in doing so, he wins. If he fails, he must let his marble lie where it stopped, where it becomes a target for the first player. It is known also as Hit or Span, Boss and Span, and Boss Out.59 The only mention of the game in Shakespeare is in 2 H. VI IV.ii.166 (“...Henry the Fifth, in whose time the boys went to span-counter for French crowns”).


This is a form of backgammon. Nares (quoting Douce) equates it with the game of Fayles.61 An allusion to it appears in L.L.L. V.ii.326 (“This is the ape of form, monsieur the nice, That, when he plays at tables, chides the dice In honourable terms”).


Tennis, a French importation, was popular in England even before the accession of Henry VII, and its popularity increased during his reign [Page 46] and that of Henry VIII, who built in 1529 one of the first covered courts. Balls were made by the Ironmongers Company and stuffed with hair; the net was simply a cord with tassels hanging from it. There were in Shakespeare's time no uniform rules, the people of each town or village playing the game as they wished.63 Allusions are numerous: All's W. II.iii.313 (“Why, these balls bound; there's noise in it”); H. V I.ii.261 (“When we have match'd our racket to these balls, We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard”); II.iv.131-132(“... I did present him with the Paris balls”); Much III.ii.45(“... the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls”); L.L.L. V.ii.29(“Well bandied both; a set of wit well play'd”); A.Y.L. V.i.61 (“bandy with thee in faction”); Lear I.iv.92 ("bandy"); H. VIII I.iii.30(“... renouncing clean The faith they have in tennis…”); John V.ii.l07 (“And shall I now give o'er the yielded set?”); 2 H. IV II.ii.19(“But that the tennis-court-keeper knows better than I; ...”); Ham. II.i.59(“There's falling out at tennis .. .”), Per. II.i.63(“A man whom both the water: and the wind, In that vast tennis court, have made the ball For them to play upon, entreats you pity him”).


This is a race-game, invented in France about 1500. Games are won by scoring points for the different possibilities of move given by the throws of two dice.64 Mention of it occurs in Meas. I.ii.196 (“…foolishly lost at a game of tick-tack" ).


The playing of Tops is referred to in several of the plays: Wives V.i.26 (“Since I plucked geese, played truant and whipped top, I knew [Page 47] not what 'twas to be beaten till lately”); Twel. I.iii.43 (“...he's a coward and a coystrill that will not drink to my niece till his brains turn o’ the toe like a parish-top”); Cor. IV.v.161 (“as one would set up a top”); L.L.L. IV.iii.167 (“To see great Hercules whipping a gig”); V.i.69 (“go, whip thy gig”).


This has been described both as a dice game and as a game resembling Hopscotch. It is more likely the former.67 The only allusion to it appears in Twel. II.v.208 (“Shall I play my freedom at tray-trip, and become they bond-slave?”).


The title of this game is a corruption of the French Troule-in-madame. It appears to have consisted in rolling small balls into holes at one end of the game-board. The only reference to it is in W.T. IV.iii.92 (“A fellow, sir, that I have known to go about with troll-my-dames...”).


References to this sport are to be found in the following plays: A.Y.L. I.i; Much V.i.l42 (“…he knows how to turn his girdle”) 69; Oth. II.i.314 (“on the hip”); Merch. I.iii.47 (“If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”) .


  1. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 1.
  2. Hardin Craig (ed.), The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York, 1951).
  3. Although it may well have been the Saxons who first developed archery in England, since it is from their words boga and area that our "bow" and "arrow" are derived and since, too, we have in the Bayeux Tapestry what appears to be added confirmation, it was probably not until Norman times that archery became a really important factor in the national defence.
  4. In view of the fact that the bow as a weapon was almost completely obsolete by the time of Charles I (1625-1649), it is somewhat surprising to find Benjamin Franklin, more than a hundred years later, seriously advocating the use of the bow by certain units of the Continental army. He pointed out, among other things, that the bow could be more easily replaced than a firearm, that the procuring of ammunition would be a comparatively simple matter, and that there would be no puff of smoke to reveal the archer's position.
  5. The reference here is to a man who stood near the target to check off the arrows of the contestants.
  6. This was one of the diversions with which Elizabeth entertained foreign diplomats and other distinguished visitors.
  7. L. F. Salzman, English Life in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1926), p.83.
  8. Norman Wymer, Sport in England: A History of Two Thousand Years of Games and Pastimes (London, 1949), p. 77.
  9. Since the player of billiards needed steady nerves, the billiard room was perhaps the only place where the conduct of onlookers (who were merely tolerated, not welcomed) was strictly governed. No "kibitzing" was permitted, and the unlucky bystander who forgot himself and ventured to speak without having been asked for his opinion was requested to leave the room or, if allowed to remain, could do so only on condition of "instantly forfeiting two pence for the good of the company."
  10. Wymer, p. 99.
  11. Other literary works in which this game is mentioned include Massinger, The Guardian (; Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters (III.i:ii); Porter, Two Angry Women of Abington; Heywood, The Wise Woman of Hogsden; Rowland, "Letting of Humors Blood"; 2 The Return from Parnassus, Prologue, line 40. For descriptions of early forms of the game, see Alice B. Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, lS94-1S9S), I, 137; Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (2nd ed., London, lS31), p. 392; C. F. Northall, English Folk-Rhymes (London, 1892), p. 402.
  12. Allusions to bowling appear in Dekker, The Honest Whore, II (V. ii); Middleton, No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's (Il.iii ), Chapman, All Fooles (III. i); Massinger, The City Madam (I. ii), Beaumont and Fletcher, The Scornful Lady (I. i); Webster, The Weakest Goeth to the Wall (III. i; IV.iii); Farquhar, The Beaux' Stratagem (I. i.16S); Field, A Woman Is a Weathercock (III. ii); Porter, The Two Angry Women of Abington; Chamberlayne, Allgliae Notitia; Wilson, The Three Ladies of London; Webster, The White Devil (I.ii ), Rollins, Pepys Ballads, I, 192 ("A Mad Crew"); Congreve, The Old Bachelor (I.i) and The Double-Dealer (II.i); and the anonymous Look About You (xiii). Strutt (l838 ed.), p. 270, cites Country Contentments ("...your flat bowles being best for allies, your round bayzed bowles for open grounds of advantage, and your round bowles, like a ball, for green swarthes that are plain and level") and on p. 273 The Merry Milkmaid of Islington ("I'll cleave you from the skull to the twist, and make nine skittles of thy bones"). In Dekker's The Bellman of London (l608) a character is described as one "whose inn is a bowling-alley, whose books are bowls, and whose law-cases are lurches and rubbers." For descriptions and pictures of twelfth and thirteenth century bowling, see Strutt (1838 ed.), pp. 266-274. Five of these drawings are reproduced in Carl-Herman Tillhagen, "Till kagelspelete historia i Sverige," Saga oeh Sed (1949), pp. 19-20, a study which treats of English, as well as Swedish, forms of the game.
  13. Wymer, pp. 3S, 68-69.
  14. Cherry-pit is mentioned also in Ford, The Lover's Melancholy (III.i); Dekker, The Witch of Edmonton; Herrick, Hesperides. Perhaps the earliest allusion to it occurs in the anonymous interlude The World and the Child (1522).
  15. Gomme, I, 66.
  16. In the Middle Ages, chess seems to have been the favorite pastime, at least among the upper classes, with tables perhaps occupying the second place in popularity. Mention of it is found in the Cursor Mundi (“I ha ne liked... til idel games, chess, and tables”), in the Auchinleck MS. of Guy of Warwick (line 3175 f.: “Into be chaumber go we baye, / Among be maidens for the playe, / At tables to playe & at ches”), in verse 1277 of Sir Tristram (“His harp, his croude was rike, / His tables, his chess he bare”), in Robert Manning's Handlyng Synne (“Take furbe the chesse or be tables”), in Chaucer's Death of Blanche (line 51: "For me thoughte it better play / Than playe at chesse or tables”) and the Franklin's Tale (“They dauncen and they playen / At ches and tables”), and in many other writings of the time. In Tudor days, Elyot included a knowledge of chess among the essentials for a liberal education, expressing his views on the subject in his Instruction of a Gentleman (“The games of Chests and Tennisplay, because thone is an ancient pastime, and proffyteth the wyt, the other good for ye exercise of the body, measurably taken are mete to be used”). References to chess appear frequently in Elizabethan and Stuart drama and also in the polemical writings of the time, e.g. Pap with a Hatchet, published in 1589 in the course of the Marprelate controversy (“If a Martin can play at Chestes as well as the nephewe his Ape, he shall knowd what it is for a Scaddle pawne, to crosse a Bishop in his owne walke. Such dydoppers must be taken up, els theile not stick to check the King”). Probably the most interesting dramatic production associated with the game is Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess, performed at the Globe just eight years after Shakespeare's death and printed a short time later. Written at a time when negotiations were being carried on for Prince Charles's Spanish marriage, the play satirized the Church of Rome and the Spanish ambassador, Gondemar, so bitterly that, at Gondemar's protest, the authorities withdrew it after the ninth performance. The players were ordered to appear before the Privy Council, and, according to one account, Middleton was imprisoned for a time.
  17. H. J. R. Murray, A History of Board-Games Other than Chess (Oxford, 1932), 84. See also the same author's A History at Chess (Oxford, 1913).
  18. Although popular in the Tudor Age, cock-fighting was not to reach its peak until the Restoration. Besides that of Henry VIII, we find only two other enclosed cock-pits mentioned. However, open-air contests were being held in the country and in the inn-yards. The name of London's Cockspur Street bears witness to the influence of the sport.
  19. Wymer, P: 76.
  20. Allusions to dicing are to be found in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (I.i ), Shirley's The Lady of Pleasure (V.i); and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Dice were used also to determine the moving of counters in such board-games as the sixteenth century Doublets and Catch-dolt and the later Snake; see Strutt (1838 ed.), p. 437. References abound in the earlier literature: Caxton's Reynard the Fox (“A pylgrym of deux aas”), Brant's translation of the Narrenschiff (“Thoughe sys or synke them fayle / The dyse oft renneth upon the chaunce of thre”); The History of Beryn (“I bare thre dise in myne own purs, / ... cast them forth all three, / And too fil amys ase”), Chaucer's Monke's Tale (“Empoysened of thin ouyne folk thou were; / Thyn sis•fortune hath turned into aas”) and Pardoner's Tale (“Seuene is my chaunce and thyn is cynk and treye”); The Harrowing of Hell (“Still be thou, Sathanas! / The ys fallen ambes aas”); etc.
  21. G. O. Trevelyan, Early History of Charles James Fox (New York, 1880), P: 77.
  22. For other allusions to this sport, see Beaumont and Fletcher, Woman Hater (IV.iii); Dekker and Webster, Westward Ho (II.iii); Gifford's edition of the works of Jonson (VII, 283); Shirley, St. Patrick for Ireland; Brand, Dutchesse of Suffolke; Chaucer's prologue to the Manciple's Tale; Rowland, “Letting of Humors Blood” and “Humors Ordinaire.”
  23. Sports (1903 ed.), p. 313.
  24. This sport is alluded to also in Chapman, The Gentleman Usher (I.i.64); Jonson, Every Man in His Humour (I.i ), Beaumont and Fletcher, Philaster (V.iv); Fletcher, The Wild Goose Chase (IlI.i); Dekker, The Honest Whore, II (V.ii); Heywood, A Woman Killed With Kindness (I.iii).
  25. The game is mentioned in Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra (II.i); Fletcher, The Wild Goose Chase (III.i.72); and Jonson, The Gipsies Metamorphosed (part 1, line 120). The trick is explained in Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft (Ch. 29, p.336). An Iranian student of mine informs me that this trick is still being played in the less-frequented streets and courts of Teheran.
  26. See also Jonson, Every Man in His Humour (I.v, IV.vii.iv). It appears likely that Shakespeare knew and drew material from Vicentio Saviolo his Practice (1595), written by the famous Italian master of fence. Relations between English professionals and Italian fencing instructors resident in London were, in general, not very cordial; see Wymer, pp. 67-68.
  27. Football is mentioned also in Webster, The White Devil (IV.i.135); Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (V.i); and Rowley, All’s Lost by Lust (IILi.l47).
  28. See Wymer, pp. 39, 73.
  29. Mention of this game occurs in Piers Plowman (ed. Wright), P: 69; Jonson, Bartholomew Fair (III.i); and Browne, Britannia's Pastorals (I.v).
  30. There are allusions to hazard in Chapman, Eastward Hoe (V.i), Dekker, The Gull's Hornbook (ed, McKerrow), p. 55; and Webster, The White Devil (I.ii).
  31. Hazard was also a technical term in tennis; see Robert Tailor, The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl (Dodsley's Old Plays, ed Collier), VI, 334.
  32. Hide and Seek (All Hid) is mentioned in Toumeur, The Revenger's Tragedy (III.v); Porter, The Two Angl'y Women of Abington; and Dekker, Satiromastix.
  33. Wymer, pp. 60-61.
  34. Allusions to this game appear in Jonson, Bartholomew Fair; Dekker, The Hones: Whore, II (V.ii); Rollins, Pepys Ballads, IT, 122 (“A New Merry Ballad I Have Here”); and Rowland, “Letting of Humors Blood.”
  35. Loggats is mentioned in Jonson, A Tale of a Tub (IV.v) and Rowland, “Letting of Humors Blood.”
  36. Strutt (1838 ed.), pp. 266-274.
  37. 37 Gomme, I, 390.
  38. The game is mentioned also in Jonson, Magnetic Lady (IV.ill); Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters ( III.iii).
  39. See p. 317.
  40. Murray, A History of Board-Games, P: 18.
  41. For other allusions to this game, see Heywood, A Woman Killed With Kindness (III.ii); Shirley, Hyde Park (IV.iii); Middleton, Blurt, Master Constable (III.ii); Poor Robin's Almanac for 1715; Rowland, "Letting of Humors Blood;" Rollins, Pepys Ballads, II, 98 (“The Beggar's Intrusion"); Dekker and Webster, Westward Ho (IV.i); 2 The Return from Parnassus, Prologue, line 22.
  42. There is a reference to this game in Shirley's Love's Cruelty (I.ii).
  43. This was apparently one of the most popular card games of the time. It is mentioned in Jonson, Volpone (IILv.37-39; IILvii); The Alchemist (I.ii; II.iv; V.iv); Every Man Out of His Humour (I.i); and Cynthia's Revels (I1I.i); Gascoigne, Supposes (III.ii); Chapman, Eastward: Hoe (IV.i); Field, A Woman Is a Weathercock (III.ii); Middleton, Your Five Gallants (I.i); Beaumont and Fletcher, Monsieur Thomas (IV.ix); Ford, Tis Pity She's a Whore (V.iv); Middleton, Spanish Gypsy (IV.ii); Dekker, The Gull's Hornbook (ed. McKerrow), pp. 55, 79; 2 The Return from Parnassus, Prologue, lines 15, 23.
  44. Base is mentioned also in Marlowe, Edward the Second (IV.iii); Jonson, The Sad Shepherd (I.ii ), Spenser, Faerie Queene (Canto V, 8); Drayton, Polyolbion (30th song); Chettle, Hoffman; Brome, Antipodes; and Rowland, "Letting of Humors Blood."
  45. It is interesting to note that Indian children in Bombay and vicinity play a game somewhat resembling this. Rather, it is a combination of proverb-capping and “spelling by the last letter.” One child recites a sloka (proverb), and the next must then recite another beginning with the last letter of the first. If he is unable to do so, his opponent wins a point. See my "A Collection of Games from India . . . ," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, LXXX, 1 (1955), 99. This sort of thing is stilI a living tradition in the Bum ceremonial antiphony known as Inga fuka, currently being studied by Professor de Josselin de Jong, of the University of Leyden. Somewhat similar are the poetical contests between Annamite young men and girls; see Nguyen van Huyen, Les chants alternés des garçons et des filles Annam (Paris, 1933).
  46. Pushpin is mentioned in Nash, Apologie (1593); Middleton and Rowley, The Changeling (I.ii.20S); and 2 The Return from Parnassus (III.i.39), where it is called "blow-point."
  47. See also Shirley, The Grateful Servant (V.i); Field, A Woman Is a Weather-cock (I.ii), Middleton, The Family of Love (V.ii ): Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (I.ii); Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (lV.iii.95); Marston, The Malcontent (I.iii.79); Dekker and Webster, Northward Ho (I.iii); Shirbum Ballads (ed, Clark), P: 364(“The Mery Life of the Countriman”), Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 18lA (“The Bonny Earl of Murray”).
  48. Wymer, pp. 50-51.
  49. This was a later development, in which the mounted contestant tried to thrust his lance through a suspended ring. The sport is mentioned in Messinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (IV.ill).
  50. References to this game are to be found in Massinger, The Guardian (I.i); Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (II. v): and Ascham's Toxophilus.
  51. Shoeing the Wild Mare is mentioned in Beaumont and Fletcher, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (I.iv ), Jonson, Love Restored; Nicholas Breton, Fantasiicks (1626); and George Wither's "A Christmas Carol."
  52. William Carew Hazlitt (ed ), Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain; Faiths and Folklore, a Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, 2 v. (London, 1905).
  53. Robert Craig Maclagan, The Games and Diversions of Argyleshire (London, 1901), p. 197.
  54. Craig so identifies the allusion in 2 H. IV lI.iv.268.
  55. This game is mentioned in Jonson, Every Man in His Humour (III.v), Middleton, The Roaring Girl (V.i); Rowland, "Letting of Humors Blood; "Pepys Diary (entry for June 11, 1664); and Poor Robin's Almanac for 1715.
  56. There is a reference in Chamberlayne, Angliae Notiiia (1676).
  57. This term was applied to large shillings coined during the reign of Edward VI.
  58. There are references to the game in Beaumont and Fletcher, Monsieur Thomas (Iv.ix ), Dekker and Webster, Northward Ho (I.ii ), and Donne (Satire IV).
  59. Gomme, II, 210.
  60. This game is mentioned in Gascoigne, Supposes (lI.ii); Middleton, Blurt, Master Constable (V.ii); Kyd, Arden of Faversham; Rollins, Pepys Ballads, II. 67 (“Sure My Mother Was a Witch”); and Poor Robin's Almanac for 1715. Contrary to popular opinion, the term tables is not the name of a particular game but a generic term applied to all board-games. However, the word does not derive from the table or board on which the game was played but from the pieces (tabulae) which were moved upon it. The number and the direction of these moves were determined by the throwing of dice by the players. The earliest mentions of this game in literature appear to be those in the Polycraticus of John of Salisbury, completed sometime before 1159, and Layamon's Brut (c. 1205).
  61. Robert Nares, A Glossary; or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, etc ... in the Works of English Authors (London, 1859), p.298.
  62. Allusions to this game are particularly numerous: Jonson, The Silent Woman (I.i); The Staple of News (IV.i); and Cynthia's Revels (I.i; II.i); Beaumont and Fletcher, The Scornful Lady (I.i) and The Knight of the Burning Pestle (I.ii.95); Chapman, Eastward Ho (II.i) and All Fooles (I.i.l54); Ford, The Fancies, Chaste and Noble (V.i; V.iii) and The Witch of Edmonton (II.i); Middleton, Blurt, Master Constable (ILi) and The Phoenix (II.ii); Webster, The White Devil (II.i); Porter, The Two Angry Women of Abington; ChamberIayne, Angliae Notitia; the anonymous Look About You (scene 32); Dekker, The Gull's Hornbook (ed. McKerrow), pp. 36,49,51; Rollins, Pepys Ballads, I, 12 (“The Battle of Agincourt”): Drayton, "The Battle of Agincourt”, Middleton, A Trick to Catch the Old One (IV.iv) and the same author's masque, The World Tost at Tennis (1620); Fletcher and Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen (V.i.55); and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. There are references to it also in Dekker and Webster, Northward Ho (IV.iv) and Lee, Princess of Cleve (I.i.67).
  63. Wymer, p. 71.
  64. Murray, A History of Board-Games, p. 124.
  65. Other plays containing references to this sport are Jonson, The New Inn (III.ii); Beaumont and Fletcher, The Scornful Lady (I.i) and The Night Walker (I.i); Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (III.iv). There is an allusion to it also in Fulke Creville's “Coelica” (1633).
  66. A mention of this game appears in Jonson, The Alchemist (V.iv).
  67. Gomme, II, 307.
  68. Allusions will be found also in Rowley, New Wonder (I.i); Chamberlayne, Angliae Notitia; and Poor Robin's Almanac for 1715, where it is called "drive knaves out of town."
  69. The probable explanation here is that one preparing to wrestle turned his girdle so as not to be inconvenienced by the dagger, which at this time was carried at the front. In earlier times it was worn at the back; see Romeo V.iii.203-205 (“This dagger hath mista'en, for, lo, his house is empty on the back of Montague, And is missheathed in my daughter's bosom!”).

Last update August 25, 2010