In general, Shakespeare’s comedies are dreadful. But well performed, many of them can work. The best is probably A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I highly recommend the 1996 version, that few people have seen.
But my favorite and most despised Shakespeare comedy is Much Ado About Nothing. The problem is that while Benedick and Beatrice are wonderful, Claudio and Hero are the most slappable couple that ever existed.
What’s more, the main plot about the bastard Don John and his nefarious plan to hurt his half-brother Don Pedro via Claudio via Hero is stupid and even more unbelievable than most things in Shakespeare’s comedies.
But there is one line from the play that has long fascinated me. Toward the end of Benedick and Beatrice’s first fight, it is clear that she is winning. She wins every fight. She’s smarter and funnier, even if Benedick is a worthy adversary.
He says to her, “I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer [staying power], but keep your way, a God’s name! I have done.” So Beatrice says to herself, “You always end with a jade’s trick, I know you of old.” Here are Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson doing it as it should be done:
I’ve heard that line for years and never really thought about it. I knew what she was getting at: he was brushing her off because he couldn’t compete. But still, “jade’s trick”? That’s not a phrase known to me, so I went looking.
Meaning of “Jade’s Trick”
A jade is a worn-out or worthless horse, but it is also often applied to an old prostitute, which ought to tell you much about the esteem in which women were held in the late 16th century. I don’t think it is a surprise that Elizabeth I was fondly called “The Virgin Queen.” Men wanted women for sex but once they had them, they were soiled. And the more sex they had, the more worn out they were.
Now the definition of “jade’s trick” is of some debate. One definition is what you find in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal where Moist von Lipwig polishes up a half dead horse (a jade) and sells it for big money, after which the horse dies. That is sometimes referred to as a jade’s trick.
More commonly, however, the trick applies to the jade itself. In a horse race, it might get halfway down the field and then just stop running. This is obviously the sense in which it is intended in Much Ado About Nothing.
What Experts Say
In The RSC Shakespeare, the notes indicate that a jade is, “overused or worthless horse/whore” and trick is, “knack (of stopping abruptly) sexual act.” Now that’s very interesting because there is something wonderfully sexual about the banter between Benedick and Beatrice. What’s more, Emma Thompson plays it that way — like a woman most unfulfilled; she was just getting going.
The Signet Classics version provides the most unsatisfying note, “trick of a vicious horse (ie, a sudden stop?).” This is probably because these are most commonly used in high school classes, at least here in America. Can’t let the kiddies know of any sexual subtext.
I was very impressed with Tucker Brooke’s 1917 edition of the play, which has wonderful notes generally. But this is the note on “jade’s trick”:
For the casual reader, it explains everything you need to know. But it also puts a new slant on it for me. In this case, it isn’t that Benedick is useless or hostile. He just broke the rules — and got away.
Troilus and Cressida
This is not the only time Shakespeare used the line. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites is a quick-witted but caustic slave of Ajax. Ajax doesn’t appreciate this and beats him.
This is entirely typical of Shakespeare. In the Iliad, Thersites has no last name, so he is considered a commoner. Shakespeare, man of the people, makes him a slave and deformed!
But in the play, Achilles (who is a cool guy) takes him on and appreciates his humor. Anyway, while still with Ajax, Thersites is putting down both the Trojans and the Greeks. In this way, he reminds me of the 107-year-old Roman man in Catch-22 who sides with whoever is in power, outraging the idealistic Lieutenant Nately.
Anyway, Thersites says to Ajax, “I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness; but I think thy horse will sooner con an oration than thou learn a prayer without book. Thou canst strike, canst thou? A red murrain o’ thy jade’s tricks!”
In this case, The RSC Shakespeare comments, “worthless horse’s bad habits/whore’s acts (picks up on strike as ‘copulate’).” The word “murrain” is a general term for diseases that cattle get.
My take is that he’s saying that Ajax may look like royalty, but he’s diseased and he can’t perform sexually. While Achilles is more like Benedick, Ajax is more like Claudio.
All’s Well That Ends Well
The phrase is also used in All’s Well That Ends Well. In fact, the word “jades” is used twice. First, it is used alone. Parolles, who is a coward known for his bluster says, “France is a stable; we that dwell in’t jades; Therefore, to the war!” That’s simple enough. The RSC Shakespeare only comments, “Worn-out horse.”
At the end of the play, Lafew tells the clown that he has tired of him and that the clown should see that Lafew’s horses are tended to. The clown replies, “If I put any tricks upon ’em, sir, they shall be jades’ tricks; which are their own right by the law of nature.” The RSC Shakespeare comments, “Mischief caused by badly behaving horses.”
Apparently, the clown is only saying that if there is any problem, it won’t be because of him.
So there you have it: far more than you probably ever wanted to know about a phrase you probably didn’t even know you had heard before.
But that is much of the fun of Shakespeare. You can spend days studying this stuff and all its subtleties.
Just the same, if you don’t spend the time, you miss what is most interesting about Shakespeare. It becomes just theatrical broccoli: stuff you consume because you think it is good for you but which you don’t really enjoy.