Shakespeare on Tennis

Tennis and the Elizabethan Genius

In 1414, while installed at Kenilworth Castle, Henry V received from France’s Dauphin a gift which he chose to interpret as a grave insult. The contemporary account of John Strecche, Canon of Kenilworth’s Augustinian Priory, is related in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587):

Whilest in the Lente season the Kyng laye at Kenilworth, there came to him from Charles, Dolphin of Fraunce, the Frenche King’s eldest sonne, certayne Ambassadours, that broughte with them a barrell of Paris balles, which they presented to hym for a token from their maister, whiche presente was taken in verie ill parte, as sent in scorne, to signifie that it was more mete for the King to passe the tyme with suche childish exercise, than to attempte anye worthy exployte: wherefore the Kyng wrote to hym, that ere ought long, hee woulde sende to hym some London balles, that should breake and batter downe the roofes of his houses about hys eares.

It’s acknowledged that Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles are the source for most of Shakespeare’s history plays – also, the plot of Macbeth – and for portions of King Lear and Cymbeline.

Shakespeare’s Henry V glowers at what he portrays as a French insult:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chases… And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
that shall fly with them….
Act I, Scene II, Henry V

It’s likely that the gift was sent in all innocence and with the best of intentions: Tennis was considered the very height of sophistication.

It’s also doubtful that the Dauphin would have sought to offend his country’s most dangerous enemy. There had been a lull in what would become known as the ‘Hundred Years’ War’; Charles VI of France had experienced intermittent – but prolonged – periods of deep psychosis since at least 1392 and the resultant power vacuum created deep divisions in a country already riven with rivalry. Observing this, Henry sought to exploit the opportunity: in 1414, he received ambassadors from the dissident Duchy of Burgundy and dispatched envoys to Charles’s Court – staking claim to disputed territories and demanding the hand of Charles’s youngest daughter, Catherine of Valois. His demands unmet – and, fully prepared for conflict – Henry sought even the most slender excuse to recommence war.

One can’t help but wonder if the ‘gift’ was actually from the Dauphin at all. Henry – indeed, Henry and the Duke of Burgundy – may have orchestrated events in order that the English could cry ‘foul!’ and send out a call to arms.

So it was that in August 1415, Henry V sailed for France with 10,500 fighting men. By late October however, Henry found himself outmanoeuvred, low on supplies and forced to make a stand against a much larger French army… at Agincourt. Thanks to the power of the longbow, England’s victory was consummate: about 40% of the French nobility was lost. French prisoners greatly numbered the entire English army – and the battlefield was strewn with abandoned weapons; considering the prisoners a security risk, Henry ordered them be put to death – save a handful of high-ranking individuals who would be held to ransom. Contemporary French chroniclers offer no criticism of this slaughter – presumably considering it military expediency. From a twenty-first century perspective however, it seems an ignominious postscript to a glorious triumph.

Shipwrecked upon the coast of Pentapolis, Pericles chances upon three fishermen; he employs a tennis metaphor when introducing himself:

A man whom both the waters and the wind,
In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him;
He asks of you, that never used to beg
Act II, Scene I Pericles, Prince of Tyre

In Henry IV, Part II the scoundrel Ned Poins is mocked as a dissipated fop by Prince Hal. Poins’s clothes, says Hal, are too filthy to be allowed on a tennis court: he’d sooner squander his money on whores than buy a fresh shirt:

bq. What a disgrace is it to me to remember
thy name! Or to know thy face to-morrow! Or to
take note how many pair of silk stockings thou
hast, viz. these, and those that were thy
peach-coloured ones! Or to bear the inventory of thy
shirts, as, one for superfluity, and another for
use! But that the tennis-court-keeper knows better
than I; for it is a low ebb of linen with thee when
thou keepest not racket there; as thou hast not done
a great while, because the rest of thy low
countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland:
Act II, Scene II, Henry IV, Part II

“The old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls;“
Claudio mocks Benedick, Act III, Scene II, Much Ado about Nothing

Shakespeare returns to the subject of hair-stuffed tennis balls when, in in Henry V, the Dauphin praises the speed and power of his horse. His steed, claims the Dauphin

“bounds from the earth as if his entrails were hairs”
Act III, Scene VII, Henry V

“Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?”
Lear to Oswald, Act I, Scene IV, King Lear

It’s been suggested that a ‘Bandy’ was the name of a tennis stroke but there seems scant evidence for this. Rather, it would seem to describe the act of hitting the ball to-and-fro. Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) includes the phrase ‘Kingdoms… be no balles for me to bandie’. Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, (1611) translates the French verb ‘bander’ as the English ‘bandie’ and gives an example of its use as ‘to bandie at Tennis’.

“Well bandied both; a set of wit well play’d.”
Princess of France to Katherine and Rosaline, Act V, Scene II, Love’s Labour’s Lost

bq. “Had she affections, and warm youthful blood,
She’d be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.”
Juliet gives vent to her frustration: Act II, Scene V, Romeo and Juliet

I will bandy with thee in faction; I will o’errun thee with
policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways:
therefore tremble and depart.
Touchstone admonishes William: Act V, Scene I, As you Like It

‘Tis not in thee to grudge my pleasures, to cut off my train,
To bandy hasty words, to scant my sizes,
And, in conclusion, to oppose the bolt against my coming in.
Lear to Regan: Act II, Scene IV, King Lear

At ‘closes in the consequence,’ ay, marry;
He closes thus: ‘I know the gentleman;
I saw him yesterday, or t’ other day;
Or then, or then; with such, or such; and, as you say,
There was a’ gaming; there o’ertook in’s rouse;
There falling out at tennis:’ or perchance,
‘I saw him enter such a house of sale,’
Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth….
Polonius instructs Reynaldo to spy on Hamlet,
Act II, Scene I, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

It’s widely-believed that Polonius was a thinly-veiled parody of William Cecil, Lord Burghley – Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, Principal Secretary and leading counsellor. Like Polonius, Cecil engaged an agent – Thomas Windebank – to spy on his own son, Thomas Cecil, during overseas travel. There are indications also that he established a spy within the household of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Certainly, Shakespeare seems keen to reveal Cecil’s tactics of snooping, personal manipulation and political machination.

Editor Demitra Papadinis identifies numerous references to tennis in her “Frankly Annotated First Folio Edition” series (pub. McFarland). To date, the series has examined The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, The Tragedie of Macbeth and As You Like It. Be prepared, though, for unflinching explorations of Shakespeare’s bawdy conceits!


Depending on your perspective, Twelfth Night was penned by Shakespeare – or Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

The play’s characters – and the people who inspired them.

Using characters recognisable to the Elizabethan Court, Twelfth Night explores several plotlines. Two of the play’s most memorable characters are a drunkard, Sir Toby Belch, (‘Toby’ being a contemporary term for beer) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek – a buffoon who purports to be worldly and sophisticated, yet commits one social gaffe after another. Sir Toby’s dissipated lifestyle is bankrolled – unwittingly – by Aguecheek. In Act III, Scene II, Sir Toby cynically manipulates Aguecheek into picking a fight with Cesario (Viola), denouncing him as a coward.

It was a storyline which took its inspiration from an angry spat which took place on a tennis court:

Dramatis Personae

Sir Philip Sidney

Elizabethan courtier, statesman, soldier, poet, and patron of scholars and poets, considered the ideal gentleman of his day. After Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella is considered the finest Elizabethan sonnet cycle. His The Defence of Poesie introduced the critical ideas of Renaissance theorists to England.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Poet, playwright and patron of authors and acting companies, de Vere was a champion jouster and sometime favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. He was also widely criticised for the indifference and offhand manner towards his wife, Anne – daughter to Lord Burghley. Their two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, were said to have been born by means of a ‘bed trick’ – a ruse whereby Oxford was brought to his wife’s bed thinking she was his mistress!

The Story unfolds:

Sidney’s friend Sir Fulke Greville – later Lord Brooke of Warwick – records that in late August 1579, during a game of tennis between Sidney and friends, de Vere strode onto court and commanded them to leave. Sidney ignored de Vere and played on. The Earl, however, became still louder and more insistent. Sidney, says Greville, ceased play and coolly suggested that de Vere would do well to treat others with more respect. Incensed, de Vere dismissed Sidney as ‘a puppy’ – whereupon Sidney challenged him to repeat the insult. This he did – loudly – whereupon Sidney publicly denounced the Earl. After a brief stand-off in a hushed, court, Sidney exited with his friends.

A day later, Sidney demanded the Earl satisfy his honour; thus jostled, de Vere despatched Charles Arundel and Walter Raleigh with a written acceptance of the challenge. The Queen, however, learned of the spat and forbade the men from taking the matter further. De Vere spent several months under house arrest in his lodgings at Greenwich.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

Scott could have been describing de Vere when he penned this line: 400 years after the on-court spat, Dwight Peck revealed that although the Earl of Oxford was relieved not to duel, he fully intended to have Sidney murdered. (see Raleigh, Sidney, Oxford, and the Catholics, 1579 (Notes and Queries, volume 23, number 5-6, pp. 427-31 October 1978 Oxford University Press)

Charles Arundel:

“At what time the quarell fell owte betwene this monsterous villayne and Mr. Sidneye, he imployes Rawlie and my selfe with a message, to this effect, that the question myght be honorablie endid [by a duel]. Mr. Sidnie accepted gladlie therof, and desirid muche it might not be deferrid, whiche when he hard, never meaninge any thinge lesse, as after it appered, told us playnelie he was not to hazard him selfe havinge receavid suche an injurie, and therfore he had a nother cowrse, and that was to have him murtherid in his logeing. The manner howe he wold have done it, and what wordes I gave him and howe I withstode it, lett my Lord Harrye [Howard], who delte verye honorablie, and Rawlie as honestlie reporte, with whom he delt in as vile a practice against the Earell of Lester, and that will Rawlie avowe uppon him, whose testemonye will serve, and [i.e., if] I want it, in other matters as fowle as this.”
(State Papers, 12/151/45, f. 115v)

In Lord Henry Howard’s own hand, de Vere’s intention:

“… to murder Sidney in his bedde and to scape by barge, with calivers ready for the purpose”.
(State Papers 12/151/57)

And again, from Arundel:

“His savage and inhumayn practice at Grenewidge to make awaye Phillipe Sidneye”.
(State Papers 12/151/46, f. 117v)


Sidney’s death

Sidney sustained a thigh injury in 1586, while fighting for the Protestant cause against the Spanish. It became gangrenous and he died 26 days later, aged 32.

Sidney’s body was returned to London and interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 16 February 1587. He came to be celebrated as the very epitome of a Castiglione courtier: learned, politic, generous, brave, and impulsive. Sidney’s father-in-law, Francis Walsingham, met the costs of the elaborate funeral procession – and it practically bankrupted him.

De Vere’s death

De Vere died of unknown causes on 24 June 1604, at King’s Place, Hackney. He was buried on 6 July in the parish church of St. Augustine. Despite having endured successive bouts of ill health, he left no will.

The Warwickshire Connection

Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, de jure 13th Baron Latimer and 5th Baron Willoughby de Broke (1554 – 1628), was stabbed to death by Ralph Heywood, a servant who felt he had been cheated in his master’s will. Lord Brooke is buried in the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick,



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