Friday, 10 December 2010

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Lily Gilded

A couple of originals whom time hath much abused:

Some people like to re-swear their vows of marriage. King John wanted to renew his coronation, to which the Duke of Salisbury objected:

Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

And by a strange, forgetful laziness, that line has been contracted to the phrase "gild the lily", which is not at all what Shakespeare meant.

Lily-gilding might sound silly, but it would make a difference. Your lily would end up covered with gold, and might be rather pretty. Shakespeare talked of gilding gold, which wouldn't make any difference at all. Just as perfuming violets or smoothing ice is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

The same objection might also be made to unnecessary nuptials.

Jump forward a hundred years to 1697 and a tragedy by William Congreve was all, or at least most of the rage in London. It was called The Mourning Bride and opened with the line "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast". It doesn't quite keep up that standard, but it's really Not Too Bad.

There's a character in The Mourning Bride called Zara who's a bit of a bunny-boiler. She's in love with Osmyn, and doesn't realise that not only is Osmyn secretly married to a princess, but that he's not called Osmyn at all. Anyway, she discovers that he and the princess are all sighs and cuddles and decides to work their downfall, or more precisely to have Osmyn (not his real name) executed. She tells him in his prison cell:

Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base injustice thou hast done my love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past distress,
And all those ills which thou so long hast mourned;
Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.

There isn't a hath in sight.

So now you know. But in order that you should know I just had to sprint pell-mell through The Mourning Bride, which doesn't seem to have been printed since they turned f to s. Usually I can cope with such typographical antiquity, but these lines, from a couple of scenes before the female furies, brought me up short:

The Inky Fool was behind the curtain


  1. Who's M. H. Forsyth and what have you done with the regular guy?

  2. What do you have against unnecessary nuptials, the wife and I redid our vows at the turn of the millennium. I do have to admit that the main motivation was a hope to recreate the enthusiasm of certain other rites and rituals associated with new marriage, but it all worked out just fine.

  3. Yet another interesting article!
    Just to nitpick Shakespeare: ice does need smoothing for proper skating. In competitions there are regular breaks to have the ice mopped by big machines.
    In recreational skating on a small pond or ditch, there's usually someone who will use a broom or a board to smooth the ice.