English

Manners Maketh… William Shakespeare

Happy birthday to the most famous of bards. Born 23 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon - now known as National Shakespeare Day, as well as being St George’s Day - Shakespeare had a huge effect on our language; the Oxford English Dictionary credits him for coining more than 1,600 words in his 52 living years.

We will return to some of the fruitiest of those words and phrases but first, let us take a look at a matter close to our hearts here at The British School of Etiquette - the manners of the era.

“Manners Makyth Man” was a motto that had been around a good two centuries by Shakespeare’s time in Elizabethan England. It reflected the growing importance of courtesy and conduct in society in that century and through the next two.

College motto on manners

Indeed, it is still the motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford, both founded by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester.

But how did those manners show up in everyday life, as Shakespeare walked the cobbled streets of Stratford and London?

When it came to 16th century dining, table settings were kept minimal and cutlery and crockery often shared: each diner would be given a simple set of trencher or pewter plate, bread for their pottage, napkin, knife and spoon.

‘Don’t spit over the table’

Wine was drunk from shared cups - rinsed between sups - and broth taken from a common dish. Knives were sharp and used for spearing food from the serving dish, while forks were generally used for carving meat; people mostly ate with their hands.

A book about manners published in 1577, The Bokes of Nurture by Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, detailed many of the table manners of the day with great wit:

- “Nor spytte you ouer the table boorde; see thou doest not this forget.”
- “Pick not thy teeth with thy Knyfe, nor with thy fyngers ende, but take a stick, or some clean thyng, then doe you not offende.”
- “Wype thy mouth when thou shalt drink Ale, Beare or any Wyne.”
- “Blow not your nose on the napkin where you should wype your hands but clense it in your handkercher. Wyth your napkin you may oft wipe and make your mouth full cleene.”
- “Fill not thy trenchour, I thee rid, with morsels great and large. Cram not thy mouth to full, ne yet thy stomack ouercharge.”
- “But temper thou thy selfe with drinke so keepe thee from blame. Drunkenness hurteth thy honestye, and hyndreth thy good name.”

Well-bred: a Shakespearean word

So moderation and cleanliness were key manners of Shakespeare’s time - with spitting and teeth-picking particularly frowned upon!

Some of the words Shakespeare gifted to the English language also signpost the importance of manners to his time, such as “tardiness”, “well-behaved”, “well-bred”, “well-educated”, “generous” and “traditional”, according to the Bard of Avon site.

He also brought us some playful terms that have sadly fallen out of parlance: “nook-shotten” (meaning full of corners or angles), “kickie-wickie” (a derogatory term for a wife) and “fap” (intoxicated) amongst them.

Hamlet to Sherlock Holmes

If you have ever “been in stitches” (Twelfth Night) or “in a pickle” (The Tempest), been “eaten out of house and home” (Henry IV), told someone “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” (Hamlet) or told a “knock knock” joke (Macbeth), you have Shakespeare to thank.

And even that phrase long associated with Sherlock Holmes - “the game’s afoot” - is actually from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus also wrote about manners, in his 1530 book De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility in Children).

Erasmus on civility

Bypassing his tips about double-dipping food and passing wind politely, his most touching statement really gets to the core of good manners, even today.

“Be lenient toward the offences of others,” he writes. “This is the chief value of civilitas, of courtesy. A companion ought not to be less dear to you because he has worse manners. There are people who make up for the awkwardness of their behaviour by other gifts.”

All that talk of gifts brings us back to National Shakespeare Day - happy birthday to the generous and well-educated Mr Shakespeare.