As shown in Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, the experiences that the young dramatist documented during his journey to Rome are most relevant to what would become two of North’s first plays: Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. But we also find the impressions that North wrote about the various Italian regions reproduced in other Shakespearean plays. For example, throughout North’s trip, in all of France, Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, North singled out the Lombardy region as the most fruitful of all others, describing his trek through the fertile land as if riding “between gardens” and noting his “eyes never saw any soil comparable to it for beauty and profit” (April 18th). The only reference to Lombardy in the canon appears in the opening of the The Taming of the Shrew, set in Northern Italy, in which Lucentio is “arriv’d from fruitful Lombardy, /The pleasant garden of great Italy.”
In the preceding entry, North described some of the cattle in the stalls of farms near Milan in Lombardy:
We saw one hundred fat oxen in a stable….Their kine be great…
Remarkably, again in The Taming of the Shrew, just two scenes after its description of Lombardy, Gremio makes a similar claim:
This is a unique link. An EEBO search for hundred PRE/20 fat oxen PRE in PRE stall (or stable) yields no results other than Shakespeare. It would also include North’s journal if it were in the database. Moreover, both comments share context: discussing specifically stables in Northern Italy; both are in proximity to a description of fruitful Lombardy as a garden, and include the word kine. In North’s journal, the two descriptions appear in consecutive entries.
Notice though that Gremio uses the much more peculiar phrase, “milch kine to the pail.” When we search for that phrase on either EEBO or Google, we find that it is truly yet another Northern fingerprint phrase, appearing nowhere else in any database– except for North’s Plutarch’s Lives. And it is indisputable that the Shrew playwright is also recalling North’s passage from this translation. Importantly, in North’s translation, the relevant passage comprises a list of Timagoras’s luxuries, including a rich bedroom decorated by Persians as well as many cows and oxen. The point about his wealth was that Timagoras seems to have profited too much in his dealings with Persia, an historic enemy of Athens. Similarly, when the Italian Gremio lists his riches, he describes his bedroom too — one enhanced by Turkish luxuries–and many cow and oxen:
|North’s Plutarch’s Lives||Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew|
|For he [Timagoras] took not only gold & silver enough, |
as much as they would give him:
but received a very rich bed also,
& Persian chamberlains to make
and dress it up, as if no Grecian servants
of his could have served that turn.
Moreover, he received four score
milch kine to the pail,
& neat herds to keep them … (325-6)
|Gremio: First, as you know, my house within the city |
Is richly furnishèd with plate and gold,
Basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands;
My hangings all of Tyrian tapestry;
In ivory coffers I have stuffed my crowns;
In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions bossed with pearl,
Valance of Venice gold in needlework,
Pewter and brass and all things that belongs
To house or housekeeping. Then at my farm
I have a hundred milch kine to the pail,
Six score fat oxen standing in my stalls … (2.1.344-56)
|gold, rich, Persian,|
four score milch kine to the pail, neat
|gold, richly, Tyrian, Turkey,|
six score, milch kine to the pail, oxen
The correspondences are pointed: As Timagoras had a rich bedroom decorated by Persian chamberlains, Gremio has Tyrian tapestry and a rich bedroom with Turkey cushions. And Turkey was as much a hated foe to Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century Italians as Persia was to Plutarch’s Greeks. In other words, Gremio was sleeping in Turkish extravagance—just as Timagoras had slept in Persian luxury. Even more distinctively, the riches of both Gremio and Timagoras end with 80 or 100 milch kine to the pail, with North’s translation referring to four score milch kine to the pail and neat herds (neat is another word for oxen) and Shrew referring to one hundred milch kine to the pail and six score fat oxen..in my stalls.
The play’s context helps explain the purpose of linking Gremio to Timagoras. Gremio is referred to in the play as an “old pantaloon” (3.1.36-37)—a lusty, foolish, rich old man who was a common figure in Italian commedia dell’arte entertainments. The elderly Gremio, who had set his sights on the young Bianca, was meant to be a creepy foil for the younger protagonists—as when Lucentio, Gremio’s romantic rival, disguises himself and tricks the old man into hiring him as a tutor for Bianca. By giving Gremio a Timagorish list of possessions, the playwright sets him at odds with the other Italians in the play. Gremio appears not just well-off but self-indulgent, and his lavish decorations, originating from dealings with Turkey, would have a whiff of traitorous corruption—as did the Persian decorations of the Athenian ambassador.
Importantly, a search of Early English Books Online (EEBO) for milch kine to the pail, including spelling variations like milche, pale, and paile, yields no results other than Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and North’s Plutarch’s Lives. The same is true for a search of the many trillions of webpages in the Google and Google Books search index. As far as one can determine, no one else has used that specific phrase at any time in the history of English literature—except North and then Shakespeare (or those quoting or echoing North or Shakespeare).
In summary, these lines from the Italian comedy intertwine two unique quotes of Thomas North from two of his texts, one unpublished. And the dramatist has embedded these Northern lines in peculiarly Northern images, involving eastern luxuries, the garden of Lombardy, and a cattle-laden Italian farm.
|North’s Journal Entries on Lombardy |
(and quote from Plutarch*)
|Taming of the Shrew|
|Lombardy… All the way betwixt Milan and Lodi, we rode as between gardens; and to speak truth, my eyes never saw any soil comparable to it for beauty and profit…. Moreover, he received four score milch kine to the pail….[Plutarch]* … We saw one hundred fat oxen in a stable||I am arriv’d for fruitful Lombardy, |
The pleasant garden of great Italy …
Then at my farm, I have a hundred milch-kine to the pail,
Six score fat oxen standing in my stalls, (Shr. 1.1.; 2.1)
Two other points are relevant about The Taming of the Shrew. The first is that many editors think that Shakespeare may have used a source-play. The second is that the comedy is well known for flaunting obscure knowledge about Padua and Northern Italy. But of course the second point is neatly explained by the first. There is no need to hypothesize Shakespeare learned Italian and somehow traveled throughout Lombardy to Padua in an unrecorded trip: North had already journeyed through Northern Italy and infused all that information into the source play.
 Scholars may counter that Shakespeare got this metaphor from John Florio’s His First Frutes (1578). In reality, Florio, who was also in Leicester’s writing circle, got it from North, whether in conversation, though Taming of the Shrew (1570), or glancing through his journal. North, writing in 1555, has priority.
 This may be quickly ascertained by searching Google for “milch kine to the pail” -shrew -shakespeare. This subtracts shrew and Shakespeare from the results and leads to a manageable number of entries. What remains are only entries quoting Plutarch’s Lives or a few quoting Shakespeare’s comedy without fully spelling out the name of either the play or author.
The reason for the rarity of the word-string is not hard to find: milch kine was not common, and when linked with to the pail, an odd farming expression referring to cows that are ready to be milked (the OED definition for “pail” includes: “used allusively in various phrases with reference to milking”), it becomes more peculiar still. But while neither Google nor EEBO indicates any other example in the English language of the precise phrase, I have unearthed three similar examples. One is from John Day’s The Blind-Beggar of Bednal-Green … (1659), which uses “milch kine to your payl” in a different sense, alluding to cows that had been brought physically to someone’s pail. Day, a fellow playwright and emulator of Shakespeare, almost certainly was echoing The Taming of the Shrew, though he alters the phrase’s meaning. The second is again by Thomas North in “The Life of Artaxerxes,” also in Plutarch’s Lives: “The king therefore sent four score milch kine with him to give milk to the pail.” The other instance is in the account book of Thomas’s brother, Roger, 2nd Lord North. On 30 August 1589, Lord North recorded, “Milch kine bought—paid Will Smith for ii milch beasts for the pail.” In other words, this specific phrase was peculiar to the North family and used for the cows of the Kirtling estate. When we turn our attention to the French phrases in Amyot’s rendition of the Plutarchan passages that North translated, we find, simply, “vaches à lait” in “Life of Pelopidas” and “vaches pour les tirer” in “Life of Artaxerxes,” which would have been normally translated as simply “cows” or “cows for milking/drawing.” But Thomas, accustomed to the North family expression for Kirtling cows ready for milking, translated both in the peculiar Northern fashion: milch kine … to the pail. And, of course, it was he who wrote this same phrase in a similar passage in The Taming of the Shrew.
For further research: See John Day, The Blind-Beggar of Bednal-Green (London: R. Pollard and Tho. Dring, 1659), 2nd to last page;
Roger North, Lord North’s Household Book, 1576-1589, British Library, Stowe MS 774, pt. 2, 166;
Jacques Amyot, translator, Les Vies des Hommes Illustres Grecs et Romains, Tome Premier, (Paris: Jean du Carroy, 1606), 398; Les Vies des Hommes Illustres Grecs et Romains, Tome Second, trans. Jacques Amyot (Paris: Marc Ory, 1606), 525. The latter page is incorrectly numbered 225.