Sports and Pastimes in Popular Use in Shakespeare’s Day [M-Z]

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From Folk-lore of Shakespeare by T. F. Thiselton Dyer: New York, Harper.

Marbles. It has been suggested that there is an allusion to this pastime in “Measure for Measure” (i. 3):

“Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom.”

— dribbling being a term used in the game of marbles for shooting slowly along the ground, in contradistinction to plumping, which is elevating the hand so that the marble does not touch the ground till it reaches the object of its aim.26 According to others, a dribbler was a term in archery- expressive of contempt.”

Muss. This was a phrase for a scramble, when any small objects were thrown down, to be taken by those who could seize them. In “Antony and Cleopatra” (iii. 13), Antony says: “Like boys unto a muss, kings would start forth.”

The word is used by Dryden, in the Prologue to the “Widow Ranter:”

“Bauble and cap no sooner are thrown down
But there’s a muss of more than half the town.”

Nine-Men’s-Morris. This rustic game, which is still extant in some parts of England, was sometimes called “the nine men’s merrils,” from merelles, or miereaux, an ancient French word for the jettons or counters with which it was played. The other term, morris, is probably a corruption suggested by the sort of dance which, in the progress of the game, the counters performed. Some consider that it was identical with the game known as “Nine-holes,” mentioned by Herrick in his “Hesperides:”

“Raspe playes at nine-holes, and ’tis known he gets
Many a tester by his game, and bets.”

Cotgrave speaks of “Le jeu des mcrelles,” the boyish game called “merills,” or “five pennie morris,” played here most commonly with stones, but in France with pawns or men made on purpose, and termed “merelles.” It was also called “peg morris,” as is evidenced by Clare, who, in his “Rural Muse,” speaking of the shepherd boy, says: “Oft we may track his haunts, where he hath been
To spend the leisure which his toils bestow.
By nine-peg morris nicked upon the green.” The game is fully described by James, in the “Variorum Shakespeare,” as follows: “In that part of Warwickshire where Shakespeare was educated, and the neighbouring parts of Northamptonshire, the shepherds and other boys dig up the turf with their knives to represent a sort of imperfect chessboard. It consists of a square, sometimes only a foot diameter, sometimes three or four yards. Within this is another square, every side of which is parallel to the external square; and these squares are joined by lines drawn from each corner of both squares, and the middle of each line. One party or player has wooden pegs, the other stones, which they move in such a manner as to take up each other’s men, as they are called, and the area of the inner square is called the pound, in which the men taken up are impounded. These figures are, by the country people, called nine-men’s-morris, or merrils; and are so called because each party has nine men. These figures are always cut upon the green turf or leys, as they are called, or upon the grass at the end of ploughed lands, and in rainy seasons never fail to be choked up with mud.” This verifies the allusion made by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” (ii. i):

“The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green.
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.”

This game was also transferred to a board, and continues a fireside recreation of the agricultural laborer. It is often called by the name of “Mill,” or “Shepherd’s Mill.”

Noddy. Some doubt exists as to what game at cards was signified by this term. It has been suggested that cribbage is meant. Mr. Singer thinks it bore some resemblance to the more recent game of “Beat the Knave out of Doors,” which is mentioned together with “Ruff and new coat” in Heywood’s play of “A Woman Killed with Kindness.” The game is probably alluded to in “Troilus and Cressida” (i. 2), in the following dialogue:

“Pandarus. When comes Troilus? — I’ll show you Troilus anon:
if he see me, you shall see him nod at me.
Cressida. Will he give you the nod?
Pandarus. You shall see.
Cressida. If he do, the rich shall have more.”

The term “noddy” was also applied to a fool, because, says Minsheu, he nods when he should speak. In this sense it occurs in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (i. i):

“Speed. You mistook, sir: I say, she did nod; and you ask me, if
she did nod ; and I say, ‘ Ay.’
Proteus. And that set together is noddy.”

Novem Quinquc. A game of dice, so called from its principal throws being five and nine. It is alluded to in “Love’s Labour’s Lost ” (v. 2) by Biron, who speaks of it simply as “novem.”

Parish-top. Formerly a top was kept for public exercise in a parish — a custom to which the old writers often refer. Thus, in “Twelfth Night” (i. 3), Sir Toby Belch says: “He’s a coward, and a coystril, that will not drink to my niece till his brains turn o’ the toe like a parish-top.” On which passage Mr. Steevens says: “A large top was kept in every village, to be whipped in frosty weather, that the peasants might be kept warm by exercise, and out of mischief while they could not work.” Beaumont and Fletcher, in “Thierry and Theodoret” (ii. 3), speak of the practice:

“I’ll hazard
My life upon it, that a body of twelve
Should scourge him hither like a parish top,
I And make him dance before you.”

And in their “Night Walker” (i. 3) they mention the “town-top.” Evelyn, enumerating the uses of willow-wood, speaks of “great town-topps.” Mr. Knight27 remarks that the custom which existed in the time of Elizabeth, and probably long before, of a large top being provided for the amusement of the peasants in frosty weather, presents a curious illustration of the mitigating influences of social kindness in an age of penal legislation.

Primero. In Shakespeare’s time this was a very fashionable game at cards, and hence is frequently alluded to by him. It was known under the various designations of PrimeroPrime, and Primavista; and, according to Strutt,28 has been reckoned among the most ancient games of cards known to have been played in England. Shakespeare speaks of Henry VIII (v. i) playing at primero with the Duke of Suffolk, and makes Falstaff exclaim, in “Merry Wives of Windsor” (iv. 5), “I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero.” That it was the court game is shown in a very curious picture described by Mr. Barrington, in the “Archaeologia” (vol. viii. p. 132), which represents Lord Burleigh playing at this pastime with three other noblemen. Primero continued to be the most fashionable game throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, and James I. In the Earl of Northumberland’s letters about the Gunpowder-plot we find that Josceline Percy was playing at primero on Sunday, when his uncle, the conspirator, called on him at Essex House; and in the Sydney Papers there is an account of a quarrel between Lord Southampton and one Ambrose Willoughby, on account of the former persisting to play at primero in the presence-chamber after the queen had retired to rest.

The manner of playing was thus: Each player had four cards dealt to him one by one; the seven was the highest card in point of number that he could avail himself of, which counted for twenty-one ; the six counted for sixteen, the five for fifteen, and the ace for the same; but the two, the three, and the four for their respective points only. There may be further allusions to this game in “Taming of the Shrew” (ii. i), where Tranio says:

“A vengeance on your crafty, wither’d hide!
Yet I have faced it with a card of ten “

— the phrase “to face it with a card of ten” being derived, as some suggest, possibly from primero, wherein the standing boldly on a ten was often successful. “To face” meant, as it still does, to attack by impudence of face. In “1 Henry VI” (v. 3) Suffolk speaks of a “cooling card,” which Nares considers is borrowed from primero — a card so decisive as to cool the courage of the adversary. Gifford objects to this explanation, and says a “cooling-card” is, literally, a bolus. There can be no doubt, however, that, metaphorically, the term was used to denote something which damped or overwhelmed the hopes of an expectant. Thus, in Fletcher’s “Island Princess” (i. 3), Piniero says:

“These hot youths
I fear will find a cooling-card.”

Push-pin was a foolish sport, consisting in nothing more than pushing one pin across another. Biron, in “Love’s Labour’s Lost ” (iv. 3), speaks of Nestor playing “at pushpin with the boys.”

Quintain. This was a figure set up for tilters to run at, in mock resemblance of a tournament, and is alluded to in “As You Like It” (i. 2) by Orlando, who says:

“My better parts
Are all thrown down, and that which here stands up
Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block.”

It cannot be better or more minutely described than in the words of Mr. Strutt:28 “Tilting or combating at the quintain is a military exercise of high antiquity, and antecedent, I doubt not, to the jousts and tournaments. The quintain originally was nothing more than the trunk of a tree or post set up for the practice of the tyros in chivalry. Afterwards a staff or spear was fixed in the earth, and a shield being hung upon it, was the mark to strike at. The dexterity of the performer consisted in smiting the shield in such a manner as to break the ligatures and bear it to the ground. In process of time this diversion was improved, and instead of a staff and the shield, the resemblance of a human figure carved in wood was introduced. The Quintain. From Strutt's 'Sports and Pastimes'To render the appearance of this figure more formidable, it was generally made in the likeness of a Turk or a Saracen, armed at all points, bearing a shield upon his left arm, and brandishing a club or a sabre with his right. The quintain thus fashioned was placed upon a pivot, and so contrived as to move round with facility. In running at this figure, it was necessary for the horseman to direct his lance with great adroitness, and make his stroke upon the forehead between the eyes, or upon the nose; for if he struck wide of those parts, especially upon the shield, the quintain turned about with much velocity, and, in case he was not exceedingly careful, would give him a severe blow upon the back with the wooden sabre held in the right hand, which was considered as highly disgraceful to the performer, while it excited the laughter and ridicule of the spectators.” In Ben Jonson’s “Underwoods” it is thus humorously mentioned:

“Go, Captain Stub, lead on, and show
What horse you come on, by the blow
You give Sir Quintain, and the cuff
You ‘scape o’ the sandbags counterbuff.”

Quoits. This game derived its origin, according to Strutt,’ from the ancient discus, and with us, at the present day, it is a circular plate of iron perforated in the middle, not always of one size, but larger or smaller, to suit the strength or conveniency of the several candidates. It is referred to in “2 Henry IV” (ii. 4), by Falstaff, who assigns as one of the reasons why Prince Henry loves Poina: “Because their legs are both of a bigness, and ‘a plays at quoits well.”

Formerly, in the country, the rustics, not having the round perforated quoits to play with, used horse-shoes; and in many places the quoit itself, to this day, is called a shoe.

Running for the ring. This, according to Staunton, was the name of a sport, a ring having been one of the prizes formerly given in wrestling and running matches. Thus, in the “Taming of the Shrew” (i. i), Hortensio says: “He that runs fastest gets the ‘ring.”

Running the figure of eight. Steevens says that this game is alluded to by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” (ii. i), where Titania speaks of the “quaint mazes in the wanton green.” Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, in referring to this passage says:” Several mazes of the kind here alluded to are still preserved, having been kept up from time immemorial. On the top of Catherine Hill, Winchester, the usual play-place of the school, was a very perplexed and winding path, running in a very small space over a great deal of ground, called a “miz-maze.” The senior boys obliged the juniors to tread it, to prevent the figure from being lost, and I believe it is still retained.'”

See-Saw. Another name for this childish sport is that given by Falstaff in “2 Henry IV” (ii. 4), where he calls it “riding the wild mare.” Gay thus describes this well-known game:

Across the fallen oak the plank I laid,
And myself pois’d against the tott’ring maid;
High leap’d the plank, adown Buxonia fell.”

Shove-Groat. The object of this game was to shake or push pieces of money on a board to reach certain marks. It is alluded to in “2 Henry IV” (ii. 4), where Falstaff says: “Quoit him down, Bardolph, like a shove-groat shilling;” or, in other words, Bardolph was to quoit Pistol down-stairs as quickly as the smooth shilling — the shove-groat — flies along the board. In a statute of 33 Henry VIII, shove- groat is called a new game, and was probably originally played with the silver groat. The broad shilling of Edward VI came afterwards to be used in this game, which was, no doubt, the same as shovel-board, with the exception that the latter was on a larger scale. Master Slender, in the “Merry Wives of Windsor” (i. i), had his pocket picked of “two Edward shovel-boards, that cost me two shilling and two pence a-piece.” Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, in describing the game in his “Archaic Dictionary,” says that “a shilling or other smooth coin was placed on the extreme edge of the shovel- board, and propelled towards a mark by a smart stroke with the palm of the hand. It is mentioned under various names, according to the coin employed, as shove-groat,30 etc. The game of shove-halfpenny is mentioned in the Times of April 25, 1845, as then played by the lower orders. According to Strutt, it “was analogous to the modern pastime called Justice Jervis, or Jarvis, which is confined to common pot-houses.”

Snowballs. These are alluded to in ” Pericles ” (iv. 6), and in the ” Merry Wives of Windsor” (iii. 5).

Span-counter. In this boyish game one throws a counter, or piece of money, which the other wins, if he can throw another so as to hit it, or lie within a span of it. In “2 Henry VI” (iv. 2), Cade says: “Tell the king from me, that, for his father’s sake, Henry the Fifth, in whose time boys went to span-counter for French crowns, I am content he shall reign.” It is called in France “tapper;” and in Swift’s time was played with farthings, as he calls it “span-farthing.”31

Stool-Ball. This game, alluded to in the “Two Noble Kinsmen ” (v. 2), was formerly popular among young women, and occasionally was played by persons of both sexes indiscriminately, as the following lines, from a song written by Durfey for his play of “Don Quixote,” acted at Dorset Gardens, in 1694, show:

“Down in a vale on a summer’s day,
All the Tads and lasses met to be merry;
A match for kisses at stool-ball to play,
And for cakes, and ale, and sider, and perry.
Chorus – Come all, great, small, short, tall, away to stool-ball.”

Strutt informs us that this game, as played in the north, “consists in simply setting a stool upon the ground, and one of the players takes his place before it, while his antagonist, standing at a distance, tosses a ball with the intention of striking the stool; and this is the business of the former to prevent by beating it away with the hand, reckoning one to the game for every stroke of the ball; if, on the contrary, it should be missed by the hand and touch the stool, the players change places. The conqueror is he who strikes the ball most times before it touches the stool.”

Tennis. According to a story told by the old annalists, one of the most interesting historical events in connection with this game happened when Henry V was meditating war against France. “The Dolphin,” says Hall in his “Chronicle,” “[thinking] King Henry to be given still to such plaies and lyght folies as he exercised and used before the tyme thathe was exalted to the Croune, sent to hym a tunne of tennis balles to plaie with, as who saied that he had better skill of tennis than of warre.” On the foundation of this incident, as told by Holinshed, Shakespeare has constructed his fine scene of the French Ambassadors’ audience in “Henry V” (i. 2). As soon as the first Ambassador has given the Dauphin’s message and insulting gift, the English king speaks thus

“We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls.
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him, he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chases.”

In “Hamlet” (ii. i), Polonius speaks of this pastime, and alludes to “falling out at tennis.” In the sixteenth century tennis-courts were common in England, and the establishment of such places was countenanced by the example of royalty. It is evident that Henry VII was a tennis-player. In a MS. register of his expenditures, made in the thirteenth year of his reign, this entry occurs: “Item, for the king’s loss at tennis, twelvepence; for the loss of balls, threepence.” Stow, in his “Survey of London,” tells us that among the additions that King Henry VIII made to Whitehall, were “divers fair tennis-courts, bowling-allies, and a cock-pit.” Charles II frequently diverted himself with playing at tennis, and had a particular kind of dress made for that purpose. Pericles, when he is shipwrecked and cast upon the coast of Pentapolis, addresses himself and the three fishermen whom he chances to meet thus (“Pericles,” ii. i):

A man whom both the waters and the wind.
In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him.”

In “Much Ado About Nothing” (iii. 2), Claudio, referring to Benedick, says: “the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls;”32 and in “Henry V” (iii. 7), the Dauphin says his horse “bounds from the earth as if his entrails were hairs.” Again, “bandy” was originally a term at tennis, to which Juliet refers in “Romeo and Juliet” (ii. 5), when speaking of her Nurse:

“Had she affections, and warm youthful blood,
She’d be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.”

Also, King Lear (i. 4) says to Oswald: “Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?”

Tick-tack. This was a sort of backgammon, and is alluded to by Lucio in “Measure for Measure” (i. 2) who, referring to Claudio’s unpleasant predicament, says: “I would be sorry should be thus foolishly lost at a game of tick-tack.” In Weaver’s “Lusty Juventus,” Hipocrisye, seeing Liisty Juventus kiss Abhominable Lyuing, says:

“What a hurly burly is here!
Smicke smacke, and all thys gere!
You well [will] to tycke take, I fere,
If thou had tyme.”

“Jouer au tric-trac” is used, too, in France in a wanton sense.

Tray-trip. This was probably a game at cards, played with dice as well as with cards, the success in which chiefly depended upon the throwing of treys. Thus, in a satire called “Machivell’s Dog” (1617):

“But, leaving cardes, let’s go to dice a while,
To passage, treitrippe, hazarde, or mumchance.”

In “Twelfth Night” (ii. 5), Sir Toby Belch asks: “Shall I play my freedom at tray-trip, and become thy bond-slave?” It may be remembered, too, that in “The Scornful Lady” of Beaumont and Fletcher (ii. i), the Chaplain complains that the Butler had broken his head, and being asked the reason, says, for “Reproving him at tra-trip, sir, for swearing.” Some are of opinion that it resembled the game of hopscotch, or Scotch-hop; but this, says Nares, “seems to rest merely upon unauthorized conjecture.”

Troll-my-dame. The game of Troll-madam, still familiar as Bagatelle, was borrowed from the French (Trou-madame). One of its names was Pigeon-holes, because played on a board, at one end of which were a number of arches, like pigeon-holes, into which small balls had to be bowled. In “Winter’s Tale” (iv. 2), it is mentioned by Autolycus, who, in answer to the Clown, says that the manner of fellow that robbed him was one that he had “known to go about with troU-my-dames.” Cotgrave declares it as “the game called Trunkes, or the Hole.”

Trump. This was probably the triumfo of the Italians, and the triomphe of the French — being perhaps of equal antiquity in England with primero. At the latter end of the sixteenth century it was very common among the inferior classes. There is, no doubt, a particular allusion to this game in “Antony and Cleopatra” (iv. 14), where Antony says:

“the queen —
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine;
Which, whilst it was mine, had annex’d unto’t
A million more, now lost — she, Eros, has
Pack’d cards with Caesar, and false-play’d my glory
Unto an enemy’s triumph.”

The poet meant to say, that Cleopatra, by collusion, played the great game they were engaged in falsely, so as to sacrifice Antony’s fame to that of his enemy. There is an equivoque between trump and triumph. The game in question bore a very strong resemblance to our modern whist — the only points of dissimilarity being that more or less than four persons might play at trump; that all the cards were not dealt out; and that the dealer had the privilege of discarding some, and taking others in from the stock. In Eliot’s “Fruits for the French,” 1593, it is called “a very common ale-house game in England.”

Wrestling. Of the many allusions that are given by Shakespeare to this pastime, we may quote the phrase “to catch on the hip,” made use of by Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice” (i. 3), who, speaking of Antonio, says,

“If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”

— the meaning being, “to have at an entire advantage.”33 The expression occurs again in “Othello” (ii. i), where lago says:

“I’ll have, our Michael Cassio on the hip.”

Nares,34 however, considers the phrase was derived from hunting; because, “when the animal pursued is seized upon the hip, it is finally disabled from flight.”

In “As You Like It” (ii. 3), where Adam speaks of the “bonny priser of the humorous duke,” Singer considers that a priser was the phrase for a wrestler, a prise being a term in that sport for a grappling or hold taken.


Back to Sports and Pastimes Part 1 [A-L]

Footnote 26: See Dyce’s “Glossary,” p. 134.

Footnote 27: “Pictorial Shakespeare,” vol. ii. p. 145.

Footnote 28: “Sports and Pastimes,” 1876, p. 182.

Footnote 29: See Nares’s “Glossary,” vol. ii. p. 713.

Footnote 30: According to Douce, “Illustrations of Shakespeare” (1839, p. 280), it was known as ” slide-groat,” ” slide-board,” “slide-thrift,” and “slip- thrift.” See Strutt ‘s “Sports and Pastimes,” 1876, pp. 16, 394, 398; Nares’s ” Glossary,” vol. ii. p. 791 ; Brand’s ” Pop. Antiq.,” 1849, vol. ii. p. 441.

Footnote 31: See Strutt’s “Sports and Pastimes,” 1876.

Footnote 32: In “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (v. 2), the Princess speaks of “a set of wit well play’d;” upon which Mr. Singer (“Shakespeare,” vol. ii. p. 263) adds that “a set is a term at tennis for a game.”

Footnote 33: Dyce’s “Glossary,” p. 208.

Footnote 34: “Glossary,” vol. i. p. 421.


How to cite this article:

Dyer, T. F. Thiselton. Folk-lore of Shakespeare. New York: Harper, 1884.