The games people play

By Katherine Smith and Gabrielle Murphy

As with the finest back-page journalism these days, sport provided an effective vehicle for Shakespeare’s commentary on contemporary life and historical perspectives

Long popular in rural areas and a sport of choice for older Australians, lawn bowls enjoyed a popular renaissance about a decade ago when inner-city bowling clubs started to appeal to a younger cohort of enthusiasts.

‘Barefoot bowls’, dedicated to the pursuit of friendly fun, the enjoyment of a beverage and general revelry and rivalry, is now common in city and country towns throughout the land.

The late medieval kings would not have approved, and during the reigns of Edward III, Richard II and Henry VIII laws were passed to outlaw the playing of bowls, as well as other games thought to be rough and unseemly.

Reputed originally to be poor man’s game, by the mid-16th century a nobleman’s mansion was not considered really complete without a designated area for lawn bowls.

In sport, as in life

Scholar Dr Daniel Timbrell has made an in-depth study of games and game playing in English Renaissance literature, predominantly in the plays of Thomas Middleton and William Shakespeare.

“References to bowls appear in several of Shakespeare’s well known plays, including Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, Cymbeline and Richard II, with references to jacks, kissing the jack (hitting the jack with your ball), and bias (the weighted ball) offering neat opportunities for metaphor and word play,” Dr Timbrell says.

“To begin with, lawn bowls had a reputation as a poor man’s game, frowned upon in part because it encouraged the wrong types of people – rowdy men competing in alleyways, gambling on the outcomes, cheating and generally disturbing the peace.

“It’s fascinating therefore that the laws placed upon bowling seemed to have been designed to make this pastime the province of the nobility. By the mid-16th century, it was popular enough among the higher classes for some to argue that a nobleman’s mansion was not really complete without a designated area for bowling.

“In the hands of the aristocrats it could become an activity of healthful exercise, in which the strength of one’s arm needed to be combined with precision.”

Using sport as a shortcut to interpretation and characterisation

According to Dr Timbrell, in most cases the games Shakespeare and his contemporaries mention have overtones of sexual conquest, military prowess or – as with bowls – class stratification, and point to Shakespeare’s most powerful themes.

“They’re helpful devices to help theatre-goers quickly grasp the meaning of the action on stage,” says Dr Timbrell.

“In Antony and Cleopatra for instance, we see a reference to the game Fast and Loose, which was a sleight of hand cheating game associated with gypsies.

Men playing billiards. Engraving, The School of Recreation, 1710
Billiards had some significant differences to the game we now play. Engraving, The School of Recreation, 1710

On Dr Timbrell’s reckoning, Romany gypsies most likely arrived in England late in the fifteenth century and while reviled for their cheating, thieving ways, were also loved for the colour and exoticism they brought to village life. “Assisting this duality was the English belief, encouraged by the Romanies themselves, that these colourful foreigners were Egyptian,” says Dr Timbrell, “which is where the term ‘gypsy’ originates.

“So Shakespeare’s mention of the game Fast and Loose would have helped theatre-goers understand that Cleopatra had both light and dark sides. Indeed, her vivacity and vitality could well have endeared her to audience members.

“A guilty favourite is still a favourite.”

Dr Timbrell points to the insult delivered in King Lear of a ‘base football player’, explaining that this is a kind of shorthand to establish character, one of the two references to football in Shakespeare’s work.

“At that period of time, football was a violent, brutal game which could cause broken limbs, great rancour amongst participants and sometimes death,” Dr Timbrell says.

“While the game could be played between only a few people, it could also be played literally between villages, with a pitch up to five miles long.

Mob football in Shakespearean England
In Shakespearean England, football was a violent, brutal game played by the lower classes

“…to be labelled a football player encapsulated a whole host of unedifying qualities, which audiences would have well understood.”

“So to be labelled a football player encapsulated a whole host of unedifying qualities, which audiences would have well understood. Kent’s insult towards Oswald is a momentary incident, but one that resonates deeply in many respects, making it rather fitting for a play like King Lear.”

Dr Timbrell says however that certain types of games were considered good training for military prowess.

“Hunting for instance was considered the supreme test of manhood, and a good hunter was likely to make a good soldier,” he says. “Chess and to a degree, backgammon, indicate political acuity, and an understanding of strategic thinking.

“These incidental mentions give an indication of the character of the times.”

Daniel Timbrell is a recipient of the University of Melbourne’s S. Ernest Sprott Fellowship, established to support studies in the field of Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies.

The Fellowship will allow Dr Timbrell, a PhD graduate in theatre from the University of Southern Queensland, to complete research for a book on games and game-playing in Renaissance theatre.

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