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What does Shakespeare mean in plain english

  1. Jan 11, 2013 #1
    Its from midsummer nights dream, act 5 scene 1. Quince is giving his perfomamnce as a lion, and he has just assured the audience that he isnt really a lion, hes just acting one out.
    So what i dont understand is the analogies that are used --fox, goose, valour, wisdom etc --- and how they all fit together. What are they saying in plain english?? (ive already looked at alot of other plain english versions but they are also confusing (to me)
    thanks for any help

    The very best at a beast, my lord, that e'er I saw.

    This lion is a very fox for his valour.

    True; and a goose for his discretion.

    Not so, my lord; for his valour cannot carry his
    discretion, and the fox carries the goose.

    His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valour;
    for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his
    discretion, and let us listen to the moon."
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 11, 2013 #2
    These are sarcastic references to fables. In fables, the fox is crafty, not valorous, while the goose is silly, and lacks discretion.
  4. Jan 11, 2013 #3
    Yes I figured that the fox is crafty and the swan either wise and/or silly, but what does WS mean plainly, in each line, in todays english? its totally confusing imo. thanks for the reply.
  5. Jan 11, 2013 #4
    The very best at a beast, my lord, that e'er I saw.
    That's the best portrayal of an animal that I ever saw.

    This lion is a very fox for his valour.
    This lion is exactly like a fox because he is brave.

    True; and a goose for his discretion.
    True; and he is a goose because of his discretion.

    Not so, my lord; for his valour cannot carry his
    discretion, and the fox carries the goose.
    (recall the saying "Discretion is the better part of valor") Your analogy is not a good one. He is not brave enough to justify all of his discretion, and yet the fox is strong enough to carry the goose.

    His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valour;
    for the goose carries not the fox.
    He is not discreet enough considering his bravery just as the goose is not strong enough to carry a fox.

    It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon.
    It's OK, let him do as he will while we waste our time with something slightly less silly.
  6. Jan 11, 2013 #5


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    There is probably also a reference to an old board game called "fox and geese" (google for more information about it).

    One player is the fox. The other player starts with a flock of 13 geese. The fox wins if it catches all the geese, one at a time. The geese win if they can prevent the fox from moving, within the rules of the game.

    The fox wins by "valour", the geese win by strategy (or "discretion").
  7. Jan 11, 2013 #6
    ok thanks for the translation..im still going through it, idk why but it confused me. Never heard of "discretion is better part of valour" , but after plugging into WIKIquote I noticed its first used in Henry IV: "The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life." (Falstaff) (which (i think) came after MSND). anyway, thanks for clarifying all of this!
  8. Jan 11, 2013 #7
    This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare is alluding to "Discretion is the better part of valor," since he, himself, authored that saying in Henry IV, Part One.

    Falstaff has saved his life by playing dead on the battlefield:

    I don't know exactly what all these royal mockeries mean. If the meaning is explained anywhere it is probably in the editions of Shakespeare's works edited by Samuel Johnson. He was concerned about deciphering all the turns of speech and inside jokes that were already becoming obscure in his day, 150 - 200 years after Shakespeare.
  9. Jan 12, 2013 #8
    But he may have had this exchange from Midsummer in mind when he wrote Henry IV.
  10. Jan 12, 2013 #9
    I have to admit that it's possible that the line from Henry became so instantly famous and oft quoted that WS felt confident he could allude to it and have the allusion understood, but my inclination is to suppose neither he nor anyone else could be sure the audience for one play would be conversant with his previous plays.

    Generally what bother's me about the notion of him doing this, though, is that it would be a little too cocky for someone who seems to have deliberately tried to remain as anonymous to history as possible. He could have, but never did, write an autobiography, criticism of other playwrights, a treatise on playwriting, a treatise on poetry, you name it, but he seems not to have wanted to call attention to himself personally at all. I'm not convinced he'd pat himself on the back this way. He left such a faint personal footprint that some people are convinced he never existed, as you probably know.

    At any rate, I would check Samuel Johnson. He's probably the only reliable potential source for a proper explanation of anything obscure in Shakespeare.
  11. Jan 12, 2013 #10
    You might be overthinking this. I only meant that the idea may have been rattling around in his own mind between the writing of the two plays, not related to anything that he expected from his audience.
  12. Jan 12, 2013 #11
    The Midsummer's dialog is obviously word play on concepts known to the audience. It's clear WS assumes the discretion/valor, fox/goose pairs are in place in most people's minds, but it's unclear to me how these are being used to make fun of Lion.

    Lion is concerned about actually frightening the ladies.

    So, they're all poking fun at the Lion's apparent unwillingness to actually appear to be a lion, but exactly what's being said by comparing him to a fox and goose is lost on me.

    What they say about Wall earlier, is completely accessible, and makes me smile every time I read it:

    What they're saying about Lion would probably be just as witty, if we only really understood the references. AlephZero might be right about the game, but we'd have to prove that then terminology was to speak of the fox's dedicated moves as his "valor" and the geeses's's as their "discretion". Was capturing a goose in that game termed "carrying" it?

    And, yeah, I have no idea what the possessive form of "geese" is.
  13. Jan 12, 2013 #12
    Could it not simply be that foxes were/are known in Europe as being cunning, so where a lion would usually be valorous, this particular lion could be perceived as cowardly instead rather than strong.
    Geese are often seen as quite loud birds, which could be considered as the opposite of discreet perhaps?
  14. Jan 12, 2013 #13
    That's the thing; foxes are not associated with either bravery or cowardice, just cunning, and we don't know if it was common to compare an indiscreet person to a goose. I am pretty sure WS was tapping into associations that were already in the air at the time, not making new ones here. So, this is possible and that's possible, but we don't know for sure what the joke was.
  15. Jan 12, 2013 #14
    From the title, I thought OP was asking about the word meaning of 'Shakespeare'.
  16. Jan 12, 2013 #15


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    Oh that would be "wiggle a javelin".
  17. Jan 12, 2013 #16
    When you thrust your hand out to shake someone else's hand and miss so that your fingers poke their stomach, that's a shake spear.
  18. Jan 12, 2013 #17
    I thought it was "shakes pear," a reference to shaking a fruit tree to make the fruit fall off. I'm pretty sure his ancestors were pear poachers.
  19. Jan 12, 2013 #18


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    Back on topic: why does the dialog have to mean anything at all? Isn't the scene about a bunch of retards pretending to be intellectuals?
  20. Jan 12, 2013 #19
    Which "bunch" do you mean? The Royals or the Rude Mechanicals, or the participants in this thread?
  21. Jan 12, 2013 #20
    zoobyshoe coincidentally ive been reading johnsons preface, ..i just jumped ahead to see notes on msnd but he doesnt notate that play for some reason. But he doees say in preface that shakespeares sources were common knowledge in his day..also that shakespeare's plays have a decided lack of in-jokes., and this is what largely contributes to the timelessness of his characters --at least this is what i get from johnson (its pretty dense reading fyi) ( i can provide the quotes if u are still interested in this topic) but despite that, i think the fox/lion/goose were allusions common then but lost on todays reader. I think thats what u said earlier anyway, no?
    alephzero, the exchange is between the intellectuals; they are commenting on the retards, thats why i think the allusions must have made some sort of sense to an elizabethan audience.
  22. Jan 13, 2013 #21

    Geese are very noisy and aggressive birds, and not very smart. They haven't got any discretion, so the commentary is facetious. Comparing a person to a goose is implying that he-she is an empty-headed blabbermouth.

    If a fox catches a goose it carries it in its mouth.

    In those days conversation was much more of an art than today: they didn't have TV to entertain them, so witty repartee like this was prized.
  23. Jan 13, 2013 #22
    Sorry to hear this. But I'm glad you checked.

    Yes, I've read that preface, which is why I was confident in saying that, whatever the allusions meant, they would have been clear to his audience at the time.
  24. Jan 13, 2013 #23
    But they're clear today. They come from Aesop's fables.
  25. Jan 13, 2013 #24
  26. Jan 13, 2013 #25
    I've never read them. I'm aware from other sources that the fox is linked to cunning, craft, sneakiness. Therefore:

    "This Lion is a very fox for his valor."

    should mean that the lion's demonstrated bravery is actually a ruse. The thing is, Lion doesn't demonstrate either bravery or cowardice. What he actually demonstrates is concern; "good conscience."

    These two responses make sense:

    A very gentle beast, of a good conscience.
    The very best at a beast, my lord, that e'er I saw."

    but going on to call him a fox for his valor seems to miss the target.

    Had the line been, "This lion is a very fox for his deceitfulness" then we could understand him to be being mocked for his conscience-ridden unwillingness to even try to deceive.
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