18. The Boy’s Comical Derision of the Cowardice of Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym

In North’s Dial of Princes, the long-term mistress of Marcus Aurelius, Boemia, writes an angry letter to the famous emperor-philosopher, who has just returned from battle. She is furious with him for refusing to see her, so Boemia begins the letter by launching into a hilarious series of insults, deriding him as a braggart coward, whose presence is never felt on the battlefield: 

It is a common thing … for fools to treat of books and for cowards to blaze of arms*…  For thou wert not the first that fought, nor the last that fled.  I never saw thee go to the war in thy youth that ever I was fearful of thy life. For knowing thy cowardliness, I never took care for thy absence; I always judged thy person safe. Then tell me, Mark, what dost thou now in thy age? I think thou carriest thy lance not to serve thy turn in thy war but to lean on when the gout taketh thee. The head-piece, I judge, thou hast not to defend thee from the strokes of swords, but to drink withal in taverns. I never saw thee strike any man with thy sword, but I have seen thee kill a thousand women with thy tongue.

North’s Dial, 755-6

*“blaze of arms”: to brag about abilities with weapons

This should certainly sound familiar to Shakespeare scholars. This barrage of comically creative insults, coming one after the other, is a typically canonical device and especially sounds like the witty and sharp-tongued Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing, who similarly mocks her future husband, Benedick, about his experiences in war. Indeed, when she hears about his coming home from battle, Beatrice asks, “How many hath he killed? For Indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.” (1.1.39-40)

Other scholars, however, may notice that, in a more serious moment, the Boy in Henry V also borrows these exact same insults when discussing the cowardly Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym:

For Bardolf, he is white-livered and red-faced, by the means whereof ’a faces it out, but fights not. For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword For Nym … ’a should be thought a coward for ’a never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk. (3.2.31-40)

The following table isolates the correspondences:

North’s Dial
Accusations of cowardice in battle
Henry V
Accusations of cowardice in battle
For cowards to blaze of arms … For thou wert not the first that foughtFor Bardolf … ’a faces it out, but fights not coward
I never saw thee strike any man but’a never broke any man’s head but
Never … with thy sword, but I have seen thee kill a thousand women with thy tonguehe hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword
The head-piece, I judge, thou hast not to defend thee from the strokes of swords, but to drink withal in taverns’a never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk

Each of Boemia’s three main insults are repeated by the boy. The first is that Bardolf “faces it out,” which is to say, he is blustery “but fights not.” Likewise, Boemia claims Aurelius also fakes bravado, “but wert not the first that fought.” Both describe the cowards as someone who will kill with the tongue but not with the sword. Finally, whereas Marcus never needs his head protection except for drinking in taverns, Nym never did break any head but his own—and that was when he was drinking in a tavern. This is, of course, unique.

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