“Jade’s Trick” in Shakespeare

Jade's TrickIn 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”:

A jade’s trick. Some such trick of a bad horse as slipping the head out of the collar and escaping. Beatrice gibes at Benedick’s sudden breaking off of the dispute.

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.

Skinny Horse by eXtensionHorses. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sexual Maturity and Violence

Sarah Palin look-alike stripper contest - from Daily Telegraph

I haven’t responded to the Santa Barbara killing spree because, tragic as it is, what is there to say? This stuff is non-news. Projections are that next year there will be more people killed by guns in the United States than are killed by auto accidents. The perpetrator suffered from Asperger syndrome, which in part is about a lack of empathy. So we have mental illness and weapons coming together again in a poisonous cocktail that left 7 dead and 13 wounded. And the reaction of the only people who matter (the NRA): see it wasn’t just guns; the kid used knives. Cliff Schecter destroys such arguments, “Of course, to the family of a victim, one stabbing death is too many. But clearly knives can’t kill as impersonally, as many, as fast or as at far a distance. Which might be why there haven’t been presidents knifed from book depositories (or grassy knolls, whatever your preference), there aren’t drive-by knifings, and we didn’t storm Omaha Beach throwing knives.”

So really, I’m not all that interested in the subject. Some time back, Jason Jones did a great segment on The Daily Show where he went to Colorado to find out why state representatives were thrown out of office for voting for highly popular and minor gun regulations. What it showed was that the people who want to make public carry of bazookas legal all went to the polls to vote these popular representatives out. The people who supported the representatives didn’t show up to vote. That’s not just a problem with gun rights; that’s a problem with everything in this country. If everyone voted, we would have a far better, more just, and richer country. But they don’t so what are we going to do?

But Jaclyn Friedman wrote an interesting take on the situation over at Time, What’s Desperately Needed in Sex Education Today. While quite aware of all of the other issues involved in the Santa Barbara tragedy, she noted that our screwed up sex education programs exacerbated the situation and also do so in much less lethal ways. She says that when we teach kids about sex, we try to downplay the most important aspect of it: it is pleasurable. She noted, “When we don’t expect sex to be a mutually satisfying experience shared by two people, it leaves us vulnerable to some truly poisonous alternative ideas, including the stubborn myth that sex is a precious commodity that men acquire from women.”

I was especially impressed with this sentence, “What if instead young men like [the murderer] could grow up learning that sex is about communication, not consumption, and that being a man has nothing to do with your number.” It reminds me of a discussion I had with a woman a very long time ago about kinky sex. She dismissed my insights into it because I had had only a handful of lovers and she had had something like a hundred. But I pointed out that people only get really creative about sex after they’ve been having sex with the same person for a while. One night stands are almost always very straightforward affairs. She yielded the question, because she saw from her own life that that was true.

Yes, we really do have screwed up ideas about sex. I don’t know a man who doesn’t know with fair accuracy exactly how many lovers he has had. But no one knows how many times they’ve had sex. This is because men see a woman allowing them to have sex with them as a vote that they are worthy. It’s actually a silly idea. In my experience, if you want to have sex with a lot of women, you don’t need to be Don Juan; you just need to come on to a lot of different women and be okay with being turned down. In the novel Reuben, Reuben, Gowan McGland discusses how he determined that if he made a pass at pretty much every woman, one in three would lead to sex. It’s like cold calling: you make the calls and a certain percentage will accept your offer.

I don’t offhand know how many women I’ve slept with, but I can figure it out by just going through my life. There haven’t been that many. But I do remember certain sexual experiences. None of what I remember is coitus or any of the other aspects of sex. What I remember are the feelings that I had being with that woman. Most of those are very pleasant memories, but some are unpleasant memories of alienation. But it is a dance and it can make you feel close or very alone.

This isn’t to say that I was or am some kind of great lover. From my many conversations with men, I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds. There are guys who make the sex all about themselves and guys who make it all about the woman. (I don’t know if this is an issue for homosexual couples.) When I was younger, I was certainly in the second camp. But over time, I came to see it as extremely narcissistic. I always felt like I was playing a fine violin, and as a result, I didn’t allow her to give back to me as much as the best women wanted to. There’s also a control aspect of it that is not pretty.

But I think it is better to start with the idea that a woman is a fine musical instrument that you would like to make sing than to think of her as a sexual device for your pleasure. But either approach could lead to mature sexual relationships. In the case of this murderer, he was 22. Why are they always around this age? It is the age that psychosis comes on. He wasn’t diagnosed with it, but I wonder. Regardless, as Friedman put it:

So yeah, it’s time to talk about sex, because, judging from his videos, Rodger was obsessed with “getting” it. That verb right there, the one in quotes, is key. His last words before the rampage weren’t about the desire to experience sexual intimacy with another, equally human person. His rage erupted in part because he was “refused” something he felt innately entitled to: namely, the bodies of women.

As someone who spends a lot of time with college students discussing their sexual attitudes, none of that surprises me. It’s just an extension of the constant message men receive that they’re only men if they can “get some,” and equally ubiquitous warnings to women about the dangers of “giving it up” without a real commitment, because (we’re told) our sexual purity is the most valuable thing we have.

And it isn’t. Sex itself isn’t. There’s a good article in Forbes that quotes the best data available indicating that only 13% of internet searches are for porn. Other than for brief periods of my life, I can’t imagine spending 13% of my life on sex. But that probably doesn’t speak well of me. Sex in its best forms is something that should be a major part of one’s life. But for our murderer, I don’t think sex was so much about “getting it” as “getting off.” And that strikes me as a rather easy thing to do all by yourself. No one knows your body like you do.

And that brings us back to mental illness and easy availability of weapons, especially guns. Because this murderer was focused on sex, but it could have been anything. It could have been Obama’s birth certificate. What makes one go from obsession to murder? I agree with Friedman: we need better sex education and as a culture we need to be able to talk about it like adults. But my thinking about the issue of murder sprees has not changed in the last year and a half, Guns Cheap, Mental Health Expensive.


Those thoughts of wanting sex to be about you or about her are really one step away. I think the total focus on the woman is just saying, “You let me possess you, now let me show that you were right to do so!” And of course, for the young lover, regardless his intentions, the execution is usually lacking. My point is (if it isn’t clear above) that both are sexually immature.

Angela’s Drilling a Hole

Angela EllingsonThis is a picture of Angela Ellingson. I knew her and her boyfriend Jason Iverson very well some two decades ago. I would say that Angela and I were kindred spirits. And I liked Jason so much that I based a character in my first novel on him, who became the main character and narrator of my second novel. (Over time, the character broadened and became much more—including parts of me; but what is coolest about the character is mostly Jason.)

I haven’t heard from them for well over a decade, but I did come upon Angela’s Facebook page, which says that she and Jason are still together. It also says that she is working at Macheezmo Mouse, which is out of business, so I doubt the page is up to date, although I’m sure she and Jason are still together. I can’t imagine them apart.

Five years ago, right before I started Frankly Curious, I wrote a song “Angela’s Drilling a Hole.” It started out about her, but eventually turned into a song about watching someone you love disappear due to mental illness. Other than the refrain, it is written in iambic pentameter. It is rather hard for me to sing, but I thought I would present just the verses as a poem. This comes out of my rather personal writing recently, in particular, Challenges of Female on Male Violence. But just to be clear: Angela did not have mental health issues, and I’m sure she is as delightful today as I remember her.

Angela’s drilling a long line of holes
She is the prettiest girl that I know
We sleep together as far as it goes
She’s always looking to drill some new holes.

Angela’s dripping a lot on the ground
She is the best friend that I ever found
I’m always happy when she is around
Even when Angela’s staining the ground.

Angela’s drilling a hole in her brain
She says that everyone else is insane
But if I’m nice then she’ll let me remain
I’m putting gauze on the hole in her brain.

Angela’s drinking some acid today
This is not like all the games that we played
She used to smile at the love I displayed
Now she gets mad taking acid away.

Angela’s drilling a hole to my mind
She says in there it is peaceful and kind
Now we are both in a treacherous bind
Angela cannot connect with my mind.

Angela’s body is crumbling apart
Too many holes now there’s one in her heart
I’d like to help but I’m just not that smart
So I stand by as she rattles apart.

Angela’s holes are all she left to me
Stand them on end they’re as tall as a tree
Now that she’s gone I guess she’s finally free
What of the nothing that she’s left to me?

There are few people from the past I want to have any contact with. But I wouldn’t mind hearing from Angela or Jason.

Liberty Fraud Patrick Henry

Patrick HenryI don’t always do wonderful people on their birthdays. I do terrible people too like John Wilkes Booth a couple of weeks ago. But at least Booth was young and very possibly psychotic. Today, I’m going to talk about that great villain who wrote the words we all learned in grammar school:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

That’s right, Patrick Henry was born on this day in 1736. And he was passionate about liberty. Well, he was passionate about the liberty of rich white men like himself. Hey, come to think of it, he was a modern day libertarian! I’ll admit, my main problem with him is that he was a slave owner and I just think that slavery is such a no-brainer, especially in the United States where it was explicitly racist. You couldn’t have white slaves in the 18th century, so they must have figured out that if you are a whole man (instead of only three-fifths), slavery was wrong.

He wasn’t born to slavery. Like modern libertarians, he was just willing to twist all logic into knotts in order to justify his own privilege. So he married into slavery and then bought more and more slaves. Life, you see, was not so sweet as to be purchased at the price of slavery, but life was very sweet when you practiced slavery. Rock on! Long live the rich white man!

But what really bugs me is that school children are told about this “great man” when he was against our very own Constitution (as are most modern libertarians). But then finally, he supported the Federalist Party, because they were the aristocratic party. No champion of the common man he!

It is not surprising at all that the conservative evangelical Christian Patrick Henry College took its name from him. He wasn’t especially known as a Christian. He was just a rich white man who used fear of slave and Indian revolts to push for revolution. Good choice guys! Your college is a true testament to your namesake.

Happy birthday to the awful, liberty-hating Patrick Henry!