Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shakespeare, Bacon - Sports and Games

Opinions, attitudes and interests of Shake-Speare and Bacon.

Interest in Sports

The sports with which Shake-Speare seems to have been most familiar, to judge from the number of his (usually metaphorical) references to them, were hunting, falconry and bowls. These were sports of the nobility and squirearchy.

On hunting A.L. Rowse comments in his William Shakespeare, p. 51-2: "He knew all about hounds, down to points like 'the hound that runs counter and yet draws dry-foot well" (The Comedy of Errors 4.2.39). "Draw dry-foot well" means "tracks game by the mere scent of the foot".

As to falconry, an Act of Parliament allotted birds of prey to degrees and orders of men according to their rank and station. And as the Derbyite A.W. Titherley pointed out in his Shakespeare's Identity (1952), p. 5-6: "When Shakespeare refers to specific kinds of hawk, it is usually to the falcon or tercel (male); it is to birds restricted to the nobility; but only rarely to the goshawk, sparrow hawk or kestrel of the people".

As to bowls, Caroline F.E. Spurgeon in her Shakespeare's Imagery, p. 110, writes: "Of all the games and exercises Shakespeare mentions - tennis, football, bowls, fencing, tilting, wrestling - there can be no doubt that bowls was the one he himself played and loved best. He has 19 images from bowls, besides other references, or more than thrice as many as from any other game, and these all show close knowledge of the game and of the peculiar run of the bowl". She adds at p. 111: "In 11 other dramatists - 49 plays - we find, if we except Dekker, only one image from bowls". Like hunting and falconry, bowls was a sport of the upper classes. Playing of the game was prohibited by Act of Parliament, except that a gentleman whose land brought him in at least £100 per year might play on his own bowling green. The reason for this embargo was that public bowling alleys were often the scene of gambling and dissipation.

Shake-Speare makes less frequent references to sports of the common people. For example, he was not much interested in fishing. And he never mentions ninepins or skittles.

How comes it, then, if Will Shakspere was the playwright Shake-Speare, that he was apparently most familiar with sports not available to his class? He could not have participated in hunting or falconry. He might have been able to play bowls since the Act of Parliament was not wholly successful in stamping out public bowling alleys; but only if he was prepared to mix with gamblers and the dissolute, which would not have been the best way to climb the social ladder. By contrast, why so little interest in fishing? Did William Shakspere never fish in the river Avon?

With Bacon there is no problem. As a member of the upper classes, he would have been familiar with the sports in question. Francis Osborne wrote of Bacon: "So I have heard him entertain a country Lord in the proper terms relating to hawks and dogs". The physical recreations he himself enjoyed (as Canon Rawley tells us in the Latin version of his life of Bacon prefixed to Rawley's Resuscitatio (1658) were "gentle walking, coaching, slow riding, playing at bowls and such other like exercises". As to bowls, Bacon wrote in his De Augmentis: "Playing at bowls is good for diseases of the reins". In 1608 a bowling green was constructed at Gray's Inn, Bacon's law school. In notes Bacon made for a proposed conversation with the Duke of Buckingham in 1624 he wrote: "You bowl well if you do not horse the bowl an hand too much. You know the fine bowler is knee almost to the ground in delivery of the cast". It seems he hoped this advice in metaphor would induce Buckingham to show more restraint and humility ("knee almost to the ground"). It is right to add that Bacon in his prose works only mentions bowls on two other occasions, namely in his Essay on Wisdom for a Man's Self and in his Essay on Studies, making 4 references in all, but there is still no difficulty in supposing that he would have made Shake-Speare's frequent metaphorical use of bowls.

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