Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 324. Monday, 24 May 1993.
From: William Godshalk <
Date: Monday, 24 May 1993 17:24:00 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Bottom's Cut Bowstrings
I'm sending you my note on Bottom's "cut bowstrings," with the hope that the
members of SHAKSPER will give me their learned advice. Have I come up with an
acceptable solution to the puzzle? Or have I managed to convince no one?
Although I've searched the literature and the bibliographies, I haven't found
any similar solution, but, of course, that doesn't mean that I've seen
everything. Does anyone know of a similar explanation?
Bottom's "hold or cut bow-strings" (MND I.ii.106).
George Capell was apparently the first to attempt an explanation of Bottom's
words. He asserts that the phrase is proverbial and "was born in the days of
archery." When an archery contest was planned, "assurance of meeting was given
in the words of that phrase." If an archer did not keep the promised meeting,
then the other archers might cut his bowstring, i.e., "demolish him for an
archer." From this "particular usage, the phrase had an easy transition among
the vulgar to that general application which Bottom makes of it."
Unfortunately, later scholars have not been able to verify Capell's
explanation, and there is strong reason to believe that the phrase is not
proverbial since, as far as we can now tell, only Shakespeare or sources which
derive from him use it in this precise form. John Ray in English Proverbs
under the heading "An Alphabet of Joculary, Nugatory, and Rustick Proverbs"
lists "Hold or cut Cod-piece-point" which of course is a joke and may well be a
parody of Shakespeare's phrase. In any case, it was first listed by Ray in
1678, more than a half century after Shakespeare's death.
George Steevens was able to find two more or less parallel examples in
seventeenth-century drama. In George Chapman's The Ball, Scutilla asks Lady
Lucina, "have you devices/To jeer the rest?" Lucina answers, "All the regiment
of 'em, or I'll break my bow-strings" (II.ii.127- 129). I think the context
implied by "regiment" (OED s b 8) is important, since it indicates that the
breaking (or cutting) of bowstrings should be seen in terms of military rather
than civilian archery. The example from Anthony Brewer's The Covntrie Girle: A
Comedie (London, 1647) appears, at first glance, not to be as germane to
Shakespeare's phrase: "Fidler, strike./ I strike you else; -- and cut your
begging bowstrings" (sig. D3v). The first "strike" means "to play upon" the
fiddle (OED s.v. "strike" vb 29.d.); the second "strike" may again sugge st a
military context (35d) for the cutting of bowstrings, though any reference to
military archery is comic since the "bow" in this case is the fiddler's bow.
Bottom's "hold or cut bow-strings" may similarly be placed in a military
context. During the battle of Crecy, according to Froissart, "When the Genoese
felt the arrows piercing through their heads, arms, and breasts, many of them
cast down their crossbows, and cut their strings, and returned discomfited."
Bottom's "hold" may be taken i n a military sense as "hold a military position"
(OED vb 6.d), and "cut bowstrings" is a metonymy for "give up and retreat."
Retreating archers cut the strings of their discarded bows in order to keep the
enemy from using the bows against their former owners. It was the archer's
equivalent of spiking artillery. Bottom's use of a military metaphor is, of
course, comically pretentious. He means, "Either be present at the rehearsal,
or quit the troupe."
W. L. Godshalk
University of Cincinnati
George Capell, Notes and Various Readings to Shakespeare (1780; New York: AMS
Press, 1973) 2: 102.
Most modern editors, like Stanley Wells, New Penguin Shakespeare, and Harold
Brooks, Arden Edition, admit that the precise meaning of the expression is
The phrase also occurs in The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver
(London, 1661) sig. A2v. I owe this reference to Georgianna Ziegler.
John Ray, A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs, 4th ed. (London, 1768):
p. 57, sig. E5r. R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) 76 (C502), lists Ray, but
gives no other instance. Dent's Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive
of Shakespeare, 1495-1616 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984),
gives no other example.
Isaac Reed, ed., The Plays of William Shakspeare . . . Notes, by Samuel
Johnson and George Steevens (London, 1803): IV, 342. Steevens's note is
reprinted only in part by H . H. Furness, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream, A
New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia, 1895): 44.
Thomas Marc Parrott, ed., The Plays of George Chapman (New York: Russell &
Russell, 1961): II, 557.
Cf. Marlowe's Jew of Malta, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1978): "Play, fiddler, or I'll cut your cat's guts into
chitterlings" (IV.iv.43). The idea is the same, but the metaphor is quite
Jean Froissart, The Antient Chronicles of Sir John Froissart, trans. John
Bourchier, Lord Berners (London, 1814): 1: 288. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's
Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (London, 1807): 2: 638, and
Richard Grafton, This Chronicle of Briteyn (London, 1568), sig. AA6v, reproduce
the passage with only minor changes.