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Tinker, Soldier, Broker, Bridegroom

Most metaphors are obvious, as when Buckingham speaks of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII:

This butcher’s cur is venomed-mouthed, and I
Have not the power to muzzle him; therefore best
Not wake him in his slumber.” 

But Shakespeare sometimes more subtly invoked metaphor through the selective choice of vocabulary. One example occurs in Henry IV, Part One. The king excoriates his son for his degenerate life, wasted in taverns with drunks and prostitutes. His long-winded tirade concludes by thrusting the cruelest dagger a father can — comparing Prince Hal to Northumberland's son Hotspur, also known as Percy. He praises the young and valorous warrior who several times bested in battle his more experienced seniors:

“And, being no more in debt to years than thou,
Leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on
To bloody battles and to bruising arms.
What never-dying honor hath he got

Against renownèd Douglas, whose high deeds,
Whose hot incursions and great name in arms,
Holds from all soldiers chief majority
And military title capital
Through all the kingdoms that acknowledge Christ.
Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swaddling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises
Discomfited great Douglas…
…Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my nearest and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination, and the start of spleen,
To fight against me under Percy’s pay,
To dog his heels, and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.”

While a principal subject of this speech is military valor, Henry also weaves in a monetary metaphor by invoking selective vocabulary. Words like “debt,” “majority,” “title,” “capital,” “pay” and even “deeds” could easily be used in a financial motif. They reflect Henry's responsibility for both the military defense and fiscal soundness of his kingdom. Some might think this is too close a reading, seeing more in the speech than Shakespeare intended. But one of Shakespeare's signature styles is the metaphorical weaving of related words, a stylistic device he used in all his plays. In fact, it makes sense that in this play, Prince Hal immediately responds in kind:

“…For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor [agent], good my lord,
To engross up [save, accumulate, invest] glorious deeds on my behalf.
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render [pay] every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning [payment of bill or tab] from his heart…
…If not, the end of life cancels all bands
[bonds],
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.”

This exchange confirms a boast Prince Hal made earlier in the play to his drinking buddy Poins at the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.” Hal read his father's concern with both military valor and financial responsibility and played on the same vocabulary in his response (e.g. exchange, deeds, account, render, etc.). It worked. Hal immediately won his father's approbation.

Later, Hal used his gift as a linguistic chameleon when, as monarch in Henry V, he summoned soldiers to arms with his impassioned St. Crispin Day oration (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother“), and then soon after when he shifted tone to woo the princess of France with his coy proposal of marriage:

“Fair Katherine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady’s ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart?”

But of course, the ensuing dialogue revealed that Henry needed no advice from Katherine on the words required to win her gentle heart. And what was true of Hal was true of Shakespeare. He mastered a wide range of vocabulary in creating individual voices for a diverse universe of characters. One of the last of those characters, near the end of his writing career, was Prospero in The Tempest. Some enthusiasts speculate that Prospero was Shakespeare's metaphorical aging self — an old man retiring his creative craft. Those same enthusiasts might enjoy speculating that Hal — who drew from his creator the talent to tailor his voice from tavern-mate to soldier-orator to poet-suitor — was Shakespeare's metaphorical younger self, just beginning to exercise his creative powers, with tools as simple as vocabulary.

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And God forgive them that so much have swayed

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For all the world As thou art to this hour was Richard then

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O, that we now had here But one ten thousand

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This butcher’s cur is venomed-mouthed

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Fair Katherine, and most fair

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