Internet Shakespeare Editions


Archery, cockfighting, and other sports

Archery, at the time still used in warfare, was encouraged by a series of laws designed to keep the longbow--previously the great advantage of English armies-- in continuous use: by law every male between 17 and 60 was required to maintain a bow, and to practice regularly (though it is certain that the law was not rigourously enforced). Shakespeare frequently used the vocabulary of archery, and he may be recalling, as Bassanio persuasively begs another loan of Antonio, some of his youthful practice:

In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both
I oft found both.
(The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.140-44)

The vocabulary of archery lent itself to much bawdy punning.

Cockfighting was both widespread and highly regarded. In the year of Shakespeare's death (1616), a cockpit was converted to a theatre, called the Phoenix; several of Shakespeare's plays were performed there. Gervase Markham expressed a common sentiment when he said of cockfighting that there is "no pleasure more noble..."*

Markham on tennis and other sports

Not inferior to these sports [hunting, falconry, angling], either for health or action, are the tennis, or balloon, the first being a pastime in the close or open courts, striking a little round ball to and fro, either with the palm of the hand, or with a racket: the other a strong and moving sport in the open fields, with a great ball of double leather filled with wind, and so driven to and fro with the strength of a man's arm armed in a bracer of wood, either of which actions must be learnt by the eye and practise, not by the ear or reading.

The passages quoted on this page come from Gervase Markham, Country Contentments (1632).


  1. Cockfighting

    Like most in the period, Gervase Markham considered cockfighting to be an admirable pastime:

    Since there is no pleasure more noble, delightsome, or void of cozenage and deceit than this pleasure of cocking is: and since many of the best wisdoms of our nation have been pleased to participate with the delights therein, I think it not amiss. . . to declare in a few lines the election [choice], breeding, and secrets of dieting the fighting cock, which having been hitherto concealed and unwritten of, is (for our pleasure sake) as worthy a general knowledge as any delight whatsoever.