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Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, [1883], at

p. 406



Shakespeare has not omitted to notice many of the punishments which were in use in years gone by; the scattered allusions to these being interesting in so far as they serve to illustrate the domestic manners and customs of our forefathers. Happily, however, these cruel tortures, which darken the pages of history, have long ago passed into oblivion; and at the present day it is difficult to believe that such barbarous practices could ever have been tolerated in any civilized country. The horrible punishment of "boiling to death," is mentioned in "Twelfth Night" (ii. 5), where Fabian says—"If I lose a scruple of this sport, let me be boiled to death with melancholy." In "Winter's Tale" (iii. 2), Paulina inquires:—

"What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
 What wheels! racks? fires? What flaying? boiling?
 In leads or oils? What old or newer torture
 Must I receive?"

   There seems to be an indirect allusion to this punishment in "The Two Noble Kinsmen" (iv. 3), where the gaoler's daughter in her madness speaks of those who "are mad, or hang, or drown themselves, being put into a cauldron of lead and usurer's grease, and there boiling like a gammon of bacon that will never be enough."

   The practice of holding burning basons before the eyes of captives to destroy their eyesight, is probably alluded to by Macbeth (iv. 1), in the passage where the apparitions are presented to him by the witches—

"Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo; down!
 Thy crown does sear mine eyeballs." 1

p. 407

   In "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 4), soaking in brine as a punishment, is referred to by Cleopatra, who says to the messenger—

"Thou shall be whipp’d with wire, and stew’d in brine,
 Smarting in lingering pickle."

Drowning by the tide, a method of punishing criminals, is probably noticed in the "Tempest" (i. 1), by Antonio—

"We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards:
 This wide-chapp’d rascal—would thou mightst lie drowning
 The washing of ten tides."

   Baffle.—This was formerly a punishment of infamy inflicted on recreant knights, one part of which consisted in hanging them up by the heels, to which Falstaff probably refers in "1 Henry IV." (i. 2), where he says to the Prince, "Call me villain, and baffle me." And further on (ii. 4)—"If thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbet-sucker, or a poulter's hare." 1 In "2 Henry IV." (i. 2), the Chief-Justice tells Falstaff that "to punish him by the heels would amend the attention of his ears." And in "All's Well that Ends Well" (iv. 3), where the lord relates how Parolles has "sat in the stocks all night," Bertram says—

"His heels hath deserved it, in usurping his spurs so long."

   Spenser in his "Faerie Queene" (vi. 7), thus describes this mode of punishment—

"And after all for greater infamie
 He by the heels him hung upon a tree,
 And baffl’d so, that all which passed by
 The picture of his punishment might see."

The appropriate term, too, for chopping off the spurs of a knight when he was to be degraded, was "hack"—a custom to which it has been suggested, Mrs Page alludes in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 1) 2—"What—Sir Alice Ford! these knights will hack, and so thou should’st not alter the article of thy gentry." 3

   Mr Dyce, 4 however, says the most probable meaning of

p. 408

this obscure passage is that, "there is an allusion to the extravagant number of knights created by King James, and that hack is equivalent to "become cheap or vulgar."

It appears, too, that in days gone by, the arms, etc., of traitors and rebels might be defaced. Thus, in "King Richard II." (ii. 3), Berkeley tells Bolingbroke—

"Mistake me not, my lord; ’tis not my meaning
 To raze one title of your honour out."

Upon which passage we may quote from Camden's "Remains" (1605, p. 186)—"How the names of them, which for capital crimes against majestie, were erased out of the public records, tables, and registers or forbidden to be borne by their posteritie, when their memory was damned, I could show at large." In the following Act (iii. 1), Bolingbroke further relates how his enemies had—

"Dispark’d my parks and fell’d my forest woods,
 From my own windows torn my household coat,
 Razed out my impress, leaving me no sign."

   Bilboes.—These were a kind of stocks or fetters used at sea to confine prisoners, of which Hamlet speaks to Horatio (v. 2):—

"Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
 That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
 Worse than the mutines in the bilboes."

This punishment is thus described by Steevens: "The bilboes is a bar of iron with fetters annexed to it, by which mutinous or disorderly sailors were anciently linked together. The word is derived from Bilboa, a place in Spain where instruments of steel were fabricated in the utmost perfection. To understand Shakespeare's allusion completely, it should be known that, as these fetters connect the legs of the offenders very close together, their attempts to rest must be as fruitless as those of Hamlet, in whose mind 'there was a kind of fighting that would not let him sleep.' Every motion of one must disturb his partner in confinement. The bilboes are still shown in the Tower of London, among the other spoils of the Spanish Armada." 1

p. 409

   Brand—The branding of criminals is indirectly alluded to in "2 Henry VI.," (v. 2), by young Clifford who calls the Duke of Richmond "a foul stigmatick," which properly meant "a person who had been branded with a hot iron for some crime, one notably defamed for naughtiness." The practice was abolished by law in the year 1822.

   The practice, too, of making persons convicted of perjury wear papers while undergoing punishment, descriptive of their offence, is spoken of in "Love's Labour's Lost" (iv. 3), where Biron says of Longaville:—

"Why, he comes in like a perjure, wearing papers."

   Holingshed relates how Wolsey "so punished a perjure with open punishment, and open paper wearing, that in his time it was disused."

   Breech.—This old term to whip or punish as a school-boy is noticed in the "Taming of the Shrew" (iii. 1):—

"I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
 I'll not be tied to hours nor ’pointed times."

breeching being equivalent to "liable to be whipped."

   In "Merry Wives of Windsor" (iv. 1), Sir Hugh Evans tells the boy page:—"If you forget your 'quies,' your 'quæs,' and your 'quods,' you must be preeches" (breeched).

   Crown.—A burning crown, as the punishment of regicides, or other criminals, is probably alluded to by Anne in "Richard III.," (iv. 1):—

"I would to God that the inclusive verge
 Of golden metal that must round my brow!
 Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brain."

   Mr Singer, 1 in a note on this passage quotes from Chettle's "Tragedy of Hoffman" (1631), where this punishment is introduced:—

"Fix on thy master's head my burning crown."

And again—

                       "Was adjudg’d
To have his head sear’d with a burning crown."

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   The Earl of Athol, who was executed for the murder of James I. of Scotland, was before his death crowned with a hot iron. In some of the monkish accounts of a place of future torments, a burning crown is appropriated to those who deprived any lawful monarch of his kingdom.

   Pillory.—This old mode of punishment is referred to by Launce in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (iv. 4), where he speaks of having "stood on the pillory." In "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), Hortensio, when he tells Baptista how he had been struck by Katharina because "I did but tell her she mistook her pets," adds:—

                   "She struck me on the head,
And through the instrument my pate made way;
And there I stood amazed for awhile,
As on a pillory, looking through the lute."

   It has been suggested that there may be an illusion to the pillory in "Measure for Measure" (v. 1), where Lucio says to the duke disguised in his friar's hood: "You must be hooded, must you? Show your knave's visage, with a pox to you! Show your sheep-biting face, and be hanged an hour! "The alleged crime was not capital, and suspension in the pillory for an hour was all that the speaker intended." 1

   Press.—Several allusions occur to this species of torture applied to contumacious felons. It was also, says Malone, "formerly inflicted on those persons, who, being indicted, refused to plead. In consequence of their silence, they were pressed to death by a heavy weight laid upon the stomach." In "Much Ado about Nothing" (iii. 1), Hero says of Beatrice—

                   "She would laugh me
Out of myself, press me to death with wit."

   In "Richard II." (iii. 4), the Queen exclaims—

"O, I am press’d to death through want of speaking."

And in "Measure for Measure" (v. 1), Lucio tells the Duke that—"Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging."

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   In the "Perfect Account of the Daily Intelligence" (April 16th, 1651), we find it recorded—"Mond., April 14th. This Session, at the Old Bailey, were four men pressed to death that were all in one robbery, and, out of obstinacy and contempt of the Court, stood mute and refused to plead." This punishment was not abolished until by Statute 12 Geo. III. c. 20.

   Rack.—According to Mr Blackstone, this "was utterly unknown to the law of England; though once, when the Duke of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI., had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as a rule of government, for the beginning thereof they erected a rack of torture, which was called, in derision, the Duke of Exeter's daughter; and still remains in the Tower of London, where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. But when upon the assassination of Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, it was proposed, in the Privy Council, to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices, the judges (being consulted) declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the law of England." Mr Hallam observes, that though the English law never recognized the use of torture, yet there were many instances of its employment in the reign of Elizabeth and James; and among others, in the case of the Gunpowder Plot. He further adds, in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth "the rack seldom stood idle in the Tower." Of the many allusions to this torture, may be mentioned Sebastian's word in "Twelfth Night" (v. 1)

"Antonio! O my dear Antonio!
 How have the hours rack’d and tortured me,
 Since I have lost thee."

   In "Measure for Measure" (v. 1), Escalus orders the "unreverend and unhallow’d friar" (the Duke disguised) to be taken to the rack—

"Take him hence; to the rack with him! we'll touse you
 Joint by joint."

p. 412

   The engine, which sometimes meant the rack, is spoken of in "King Lear" (i. 4)—

"That, like an engine, wrench’d my frame of nature
 From the fix’d place." 1

So in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Night Walker" (iv. 5)—

"Their souls shot through with adders, torn on engines."

Once more in "Measure for Measure" (ii. 1), where Escalus tells how

"Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none."

—a passage which Mr Dyce would thus read—

"Some run from brakes of vice."

   It has been suggested that there is an allusion to "engines of torture," although owing to the many significations of the word "brake," its meaning here has been much disputed. 2

   Stocks.—This old-fashioned mode of punishment is the subject of frequent allusion by Shakespeare. Thus, Launce in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (iv. 4), says—"I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen." In "All's Well that Ends Well" (iv. 3), Bertram says—"Come, bring forth this counterfeit module, has deceived me, like a double-meaning prophesier." Whereupon one of the French lords adds—"Bring him forth: has sat i’ the stocks all night, poor gallant knave." Volumnia says of Coriolanus (v. 3)—

                      "There's no man in the world
More bound to’s mother; yet here he lets me prate
Like one i’ the stocks."

Again, in "Comedy of Errors" (iii. 1), Luce speaks of "a pair of stocks in the town," and in "King Lear" (ii. 2), Cornwall, referring to Kent, says—

           "Fetch forth the stocks!
You stubborn ancient knave."

p. 413

   It would seem that formerly in great houses, as in some colleges, there were moveable stocks for the correction of the servants. Putting a person in the stocks, too, was an exhibition familiar to the ancient stage. In "Hick Scorner," 1 printed in the reign of Henry VIII., Pity is placed into the stocks, and left there until he is freed "by Perseverance and Contemplacyon."

   Strappado.—This was a military punishment by which the unfortunate sufferer was cruelly tortured in the following way:—A rope being fastened under his arms, he was drawn up by a pulley to the top of a high beam, and then suddenly let down with a jerk. The result, usually, was a dislocation of the shoulder blade. In "1 Henry IV." (ii. 4), it is referred to by Falstaff, who tells Poins:—"Were I at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion." At Paris, says Douce, 2 "there was a spot called l’estrapade, in the Fauxbourg St. Jacques, where soldiers received this punishment. The machine, whence the place took its name, remained fixed like a perpetual gallows." The term is probably derived from the Italian strappare, to pull or draw with violence.

   Toss in a Sieve.—This punishment, according to Cotgrave, was inflicted "on such as committed gross absurdities." In "1 King Henry VI." (i. 3), Gloster says to the Bishop of Winchester:—

"I'll canvass thee in thy broad Cardinal's hat,
 If thou proceed in this thy insolence."

It is alluded to in Davenant's "Cruel Brother" (1630):—

"I'll sift and winow him in an old hat."

   Wheel.—The punishment of the wheel was not known at Rome, but we read of Mettius Tuffetius being torn asunder by quadrigœ driven in opposite directions. As Shakespeare, remarks Malone, "has coupled this species of punishment with another that certainly was unknown to ancient Rome,

p. 414

it is highly probable that he was not apprized of the story of Mettius Tuffetius, and that in this, as in various other instances, the practice of his own times was in his thoughts, for in 1594 John Chastel had been thus executed in France for attempting to assassinate Henry IV."

   Coriolanus (iii. 2) says—

"Let them put all about mine ears, present me
 Death on the wheel, or at wild horses’ heels."

   Whipping.—Three centuries ago this mode of punishment was carried to a cruel extent. By an Act passed in "2 Henry VIII." vagrants were to be carried to some market-town, or other place, and there tied to the end of a cart, naked, and beaten with whips throughout such market-town, or other place, till the body should be bloody by reason of such whipping." The punishment was afterwards slightly mitigated, for by a statute passed in 39th of Elizabeth's reign, vagrants "were only to be stripped naked from the middle upwards, and whipped till the body should be bloody." The stocks were often so constructed as to serve both for stocks and whipping posts. 1 Amongst the numerous references to this punishment by Shakespeare, we may quote "2 Henry IV." (v. 4), where the beadle says of Hostess Quickly:—"The constables have delivered her over to me, and she shall have whipping—cheer enough, I warrant her." In "The Taming of the Shrew" (i. 1), Gremio says, speaking of Katharina, "I had as lief take her dowry with this condition, to be whipped at the high cross every morning," in allusion to what Hortensio had just said, "Why, man, there be good fellows in the world, an a man could light on them, would take her with all faults, and money enough." In "2 Henry VI." (ii. 1), Gloucester orders Simpcox and his wife to "be whipped through every market-town, till they come to Berwick, from whence they came."

   Wisp.—This was a punishment for a scold. 2 It appears that "a wisp, or small twist of straw or hay, was often applied as a mark of opprobrium to an immodest woman, a scold, or similar offender; even, therefore, the showing it

p. 415

to a woman, was considered a grievous affront." In "3 Henry VI." (ii. 2), Edward says of Queen Margaret:—

"A wisp of straw were worth a thousand crowns,
 To make this shameless callet 1 know herself."

A wisp, adds Nares, seems to have been the badge of the scolding woman in the ceremony of Skimmington; 2 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."


406:1 "Index to Shakespeare," Halliwell-Phillipps, p. 36.

407:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," i. p. 46.

407:2 Mr Halliwell-Phillipps, in his "Handbook Index to the Works of Shakespeare" (1866, p. 231), suggests this meaning.

407:3 See Nares’ "Glossary," i., p. 397.

407:4 Dyce's "Glossary," p. 197.

408:1 Bilbo was also a rapier or sword; thus in "Merry Wives of Windsor" (iii. 5), Falstaff says to Ford:—"I suffered the pangs of three several deaths; first, an intolerable fright, to be detected . . . next, to be compassed, like a good bilbo . . . hilt to point," &c.

409:1 "Shakespeare," vi. p. 485. See "Boswell's Life of Johnson," ii. p. 6.

410:1 Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 661; see Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," 1839, pp. 90, 91, 109; Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," iii. p. 111.

412:1 It also meant a warlike engine, as in "Coriolanus" (v. 4)—"When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading;" so also in "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 3.)

412:2 See Dyce's "Glossary," p. 49; Halliwell-Phillipps’ "Handbook Index to Shakespeare," p. 56; Nares’ "Glossary," i, p. 104.

413:1 It is reprinted in Hawkins' "English Drama," 1773.

413:2 "Illustrations of Shakspeare," pp. 263, 264; see Dyce's "Glossary," p. 423.

414:1 See "Book of Days," i. pp. 598, 599.

414:2 Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 965.

415:1 "Callat," an immodest woman, also applied to a scold. Cf. "Winter's Tale" (ii. 3):—

                                  "A callat
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me."

415:2 Skimmington was a burlesque ceremony in ridicule of a man beaten by his wife. See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," ii. pp. 191, 192.

Next: Chapter XIX. Proverbs