Sunday 13 June 2010

Ape-Leaders, Bears and Virtual Koalas

Once upon a time unmarried women were called ape-leaders. You see, spinsters are all going to Hell for having disobeyed God's first commandment to man(and woman)kind: go forth and multiply*. Once in Hell the old maid's punishment will, for reasons that I can neither discover nor divine, be to lead apes around.

The notion gets a mention in Much Ado About Nothing:

LEONATO: You may light on a husband that hath no beard.

BEATRICE: What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting-gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him: therefore, I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward, and lead his apes into hell.

The bear-ward, since you ask, is a bear-keeper. There was a bear-baiting pit next door to the Globe Theatre and it seems that they kept apes there as well. That's also where they would have borrowed the bear that was used in The Winter's Tale, which resulted in the stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.

That scene takes place on the coast of Bohemia, which of course doesn't exist as Bohemia is landlocked, but did suggest the name for a collection of poems by Lachlan Mackinnon that (if I remember aright) has a poem with the first line "Virtual koala".

The Inky Fool attempting to be Bohemian

*Go fifth and divide.


  1. I've often figured I'll be a spinster. I kind of want it that way! Glad to know I'm going to hell! Haha. That quote from the Beatrice character made me smile. I can definitely see that spinsterhood was frowned upon. As I wrote in a blog entry recently, in literature, film, etc., spinsters are to be feared. They are social deviants.

  2. The Antipodean14 June 2010 at 11:32

    I do love this scene. Actually, I love the whole thing, but Beatrice's "I had rather lie in the woollen!" that precedes this always gives me a chuckle. I also enjoy the following description of her trip to hell, where the Devil rejects her:

    "'Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven; here's no place for you maids' so deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long."

    I liked the fact the Beatrice pictured herself hanging out with the bachelors, and that they were all happy about it. I picture them drinking pints of beer on a bench, for some reason, and hope to find that bench m'self one day, spinster or no. I did find one on Friday night, but unfortunately being merry has consequences in this life that one hopes it will not in the next.

    I have always wondered (possibly in an essay or two, in my misspent youth - actually it can't have been that misspent if I am still up for spinsterhood) if that was an indirect intro to 'O that I were a man!' since both involve Beatrice at least mentally equating herself with men, while also recognising the limitations imposed on her.

    And of course, for all the many times I have seen this played, I only ever mentally hear these lines as delivered by Emma Thompson.

  3. The Antipodean14 June 2010 at 11:36

    PS I did find a theory here about the apes, but as it acknowledges, it is potentially folk etymology, since it sounds rather too convenient. Also inverts the phrase somewhat, with the whole 'men are beasts' theme.

  4. Thanks for the link, Anitpodean, but I agree that it's a trifle dodgy. They would be driving apes into Hell if the analogy worked. I fear that the origin is forever lost: imagine trying to understand "See you later, alligator" if you didn't know the song. The guesses could be as erudite as you liked and way, way off the mark.

  5. And why are jazz enthusiasts called cats? Logic and evidence are the twin enemies of good philology.