Wednesday 28 April 2010

Inappropriate Places To Kill People

Much Ado About Nothing toddles along in a jolly Shakesperean-comedy sort of way. It's all terribly gentle and fluffy. Then there's a misunderstanding at a wedding which leads Benedick to ask Beatrice whether she's fallen out with Claudio. To which she replies

 I would eat his heart in the marketplace.

And bang! You have one of the foulest images in all of Shakespeare. More efficient than anything in Titus Andronicus, more horrid than anything in Lear. One sentence: I would eat his hearth in the marketplace.

Eating somebody's heart is a pretty nasty idea. For a lady like Beatrice who has so far been pretty ladylike, it's astonishing. You picture her, blood dribbling down her chin as she munches aorta over the opened corpse of Claudio. I can't think of a single line anywhere else in English literature that changes the tone so quickly*. It's like the zero-zero ejector seat, which a pilot can use even when the plane is stationary on the ground. He can sit in the cockpit drowsily humming a tune to himself and watching the flowers grow, then touch a button and a bomb explodes beneath his seat and he is sent hurtling into the sky.

Eating somebody's heart is pretty hideous, but the line wouldn't have the same effect, we would not picture it so clearly, were it not in the marketplace. Because it's in the marketplace, we see the cannibalism. Because it's in the marketplace, we realise that this is not a figure of speech but a plan, a plan with a location.

Shakespeare was all technique. Every good idea he had he used again. After Hamlet has killed Polonius, Claudius says to Laertes (Polonius' son):

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

And Laertes replies

To cut his throat i' the church.

I hear that line and think to myself: "Done that one before, Will. Slightly better the first time, but good effort, Will, good effort." It works: violence is twice as vivid with a location attached.

Slitting people's throats is a commonplace threat. I have heard respectable and peaceable matrons complain of some minor annoyance and add "Oh I could slit his throat." They don't mean it and I don't picture it. It is a figure of speech, no more to be taken literally than the strange evolution implicit in "Son of a bitch", or the eternal agony and torture wished for in "Damn him."

But add a location, preferably an inappropriate one like a church or a marketplace, and the image revives, the threat is precise, we see the knife cutting the skin, or the teeth breaking the ventricles.

And all by simply appending to the threat a single, simple clause.

"I'll kill you." - Not that frightening.

"I'll kill you on Tuesday." - Ooh.

A technique, dear reader: a technique to be learned and used.

While we are on the subject of hearts, heart strings (which are so often tugged) are real. Medical fellows call them chordae tendineae, because medical fellows will do anything to avoid speaking English. If anyone ever did tug on your heart strings, you would die. They might also get stuck between Beatrice's teeth.

Label on the upper right

*Although you are welcome to nominate a rival in the comments.

P.S. I got glared at furiously by a passing lady on Saturday just because I happened to observe to a friend that the best way to a girl's heart was keyhole surgery.


  1. We were reading some of Juliet's words in class today when she goes through all the things she would rather do than marry Paris and then all the things she might do if she wakes up in the tomb and goes mad, like play with her forefather's dead bones or unshroud the newly-dead Tybalt or take a large bone and smash her own skull in. Strong stuff from a sheltered young teenager. Proves a great contrast, just as you're saying in this post. The kids loved it.

  2. Dear Dogberry

    Please could you provide a list of inappropriate places to kill people?

    I'd be ever so grateful as, when I finally bash my bete noir (can't do hats) over the head, I wish to ensure that I observe etiquette.


  3. At last I realise where Heston Blumenthall gets his more gruesome ideas - he devours your blog does he not? Don't deny it - mere days after you mention the Marquis de Sade, so did he... I blanched to think what culinary delight he might cook up with that gentleman in mind, but fear not, it was only cake. And now this whole blood and hearts thing...
    And there is just the right phrase for when one has a (belated) revelation in matters culinary... The penne has finally dropped!

  4. This makes me wonder about the source of the phrase 'eat your heart out' -- which would surely be less effective with location appended. Extending the idea to yet more common fare, Eff you has become so useless I've taken to quietly muttering: eff you and the horse your rode in on ...which seems to add something pleasant to the whole affair.

  5. Moptop,
    If homicide has become unavoidable you should do your utmost to avoid performing it in either warehouses, almshouses, doghouses, book depositories, turf accountancies, county courts, country seats, Lady chapels, flea markets, corn markets, meat markets, bear markets, black markets, blacksmiths, whitesmiths, milk bars, coffee houses, gin palaces, shooting galleries, art galleries, whispering galleries, or false ceiling contractors.

    I'm now off to cook liver and bleach spongecake.

  6. What a delicious list, Dogberry, and one I shall print out to waft at the Young Scholars.

    How about a Golf Course? I was thinking the third hole - not too far from the clubhouse so I could get cleaned up afterwards.