Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0854. Wednesday, 26 October 1994.
Date: Tuesday, 25 Oct 1994 18:38:32 GMT
Subject: Gummed Velvet
1 Henry IV II.ii.1;-
POINS: Come shelter, shelter! I have removed Falstaff's horse, and he frets
like a gummed velvet.
The commentaries on <gummed velvet> seem to assume that the phrase refers to
velvet fabric stiffened with glue. This seems most unconvincing, and an
alternative interpretation is suggested. Stags shed their horns each year,
regrowing them in the spring with more tines, so that the age of the animal can
be deduced from their conformation. They are covered with soft vascularised
fur known as Velvet, which nourishes the horn. As the horns mature the blood
supply to the velvet closes off and it dies.
RICHARD PRIOR DEER WATCHING 1987 Swan Hill Press.
This book describes how as the velvet dies it decays and attracts flies, which
makes the stag shake his head to get rid of them. Later the velvet hangs down
in strands, and he is said to be 'in tatters'. He frays them on any convenient
tree or branch, and the book contains a table of the heights to which each
species of deer will damage trees by fraying and by browsing.
A NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY ON HISTORICAL PRINCIPLES. Ed. Sir James Murray Oxford
University Press 1928
1576 TURBERY Venerie 47. Then they discouered themselves, going unto the
trees to fray their heads and rub of the velvet.
1884 JEFFRIES Red deer iv.72. While the the bark or skin remains on the horn
the stag is said to be 'in velvet' and is not hunted.
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 1933, Clarendon Press
VELVET The soft downy skin which covers a deer's horns while in the growing
1892 PRICE Barren ground N Canada 43
A VELVET It was a full grown bull in prime condition, the velvet not yet
shed, but the horns quite hard underneath.
We don't know that Shakespeare was ever a haberdasher, but we do know he was
born a countryman who lived near Charlecote Park with its herd of Red Deer, and
there is always the apocryphal story about his incurring the enmity of the Lucy
family by poaching their deer and having smartly to remove himself to London
before the Law caught up with him! As a boy in the country he would certainly
have known about stags and Velvet. Anyway the main point is surely that the
image of Falstaff running up and down frantically trying to find his horse in
the dark fits beautifully with that of a stag, frantic with the irritation of
the velvet, running up and down to try to scrape it off. Conversly to my mind
it doesn't fit with sticky velvet, which is more like the story of the feather
soaked in treacle as a pacifier for babies!
The association with the word <gummed> does not appear in this context in the
few sources I have consulted, and is the obvious weak point in this
explanation. It does seem to be associated with the fabric, but Shakespeare of
course was noted for the compression of his images. I would suggest that the
primary image is that of the stag rather than that of the fabric.
It would be most interesting to know if this explanation has been suggested
previously; I have not seen it before but I am sure we will find out!