There has often been speculation about how Shakespeare came by the specialist knowledge of the law, medicine and the military which these examples from some of his most popular plays demonstrate.

Here are some examples of the ways in which he uses specialist language, and what they refer to. These were put together by Heloise Senechal, from The Complete Works of Shakespeare (2008) published by the RSC and Macmillan.

© RSC Theatre Collection – Image Licensing

From Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet's line comes during the performance of the play Hamlet hopes will provoke his uncle Claudius to reveal his guilt at having murdered Hamlet's father. Claudius killed the former king by pouring poison into his ear.

BAPTISTA: … None wed the second, but who killed the first. 
HAMLET: Wormwood, wormwood.

Wormwood i.e. that's bitter (the sharp-tasting plant was also used to purge the digestive tract of worms, so there may be a suggestion of bringing forth gnawing guilt; it was given to the patient in a preparation poured into the ear) 

From Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

Following the murder of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth encourages her distraught husband to wash his bloody hands.

LADY MACBETH: … A little water clears us of this deed.

clears cleanses/legally exonerates 

deed act/crime (puns on 'dead'; spellings were interchangeable and 'deed' was a northern form of 'death') 

From Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 3

Romeo kisses Juliet as he prepares to die by poison.

ROMEO: … And lips, O you 
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss 
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!

dateless bargain eternal contract (stamped with an official seal

engrossing all-consuming/monopolizing (with legal connotations: 'to engross' is 'to write in a manner appropriate to legal documents')

From King Lear, Act 4, Scene 5

Edgar and Gloucester (his ailing, blinded father) meet King Lear, who is wearing a crown of weeds and is clearly out of his mind.

EDGAR:… But who comes here? 
The safer sense will ne'er accommodate 
His master thus. 
LEAR: No, they cannot touch me for crying: I am the king himself. 
EDGAR: O thou side-piercing sight! 
LEAR: Nature's above art in that respect. There's your press-money. That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper. Draw me a clothier's yard. Look, look, a mouse! Peace, peace, this piece of toasted cheese will do't. There's my gauntlet: I'll prove it on a giant. Bring up the brown bills. O, well-flown, bird! I'th'clout, i'th'clout: hwegh! Give the word. 
EDGAR: Sweet marjoram

The … thus were he (Lear) in his right mind, he would never permit himself to dress like this (or possibly 'Gloucester's senses will not be able to withstand seeing his master like this') 

touch accuse, blame/lay hands on 

press-money money paid to military recruits when they were conscripted (Lear seems to imagine he is recruiting an army)

crow-keeper scarecrow/person employed to frighten crows from the crops 

Draw … yard draw your bow to its fullest extent (the length of a longbow's arrow, which, at thirty-six inches, was the same as the length of a cloth-seller's measuring rod) 

piece puns on peace

gauntlet armoured glove thrown down as a challenge to a duel 

prove it on make good my cause against

brown bills long-handled weapons, painted or varnished brown and topped with axe-like blades; or soldiers carrying such weapons (the sense of 'beak' may give rise to the image of a bird) 

well-flown, bird the language of falconry, here used to describe an arrow's flight 

I'th'clout cloth at the centre of an archer's target 

hewgh perhaps Lear imitates the sound of an arrow as it flies through the air and hits the target 

watch password (continues Lear's military fantasy) 

Sweet marjoram Edgar invents a password that relates to Lear's headgear and to the plant's alleged medicinal properties in treating brain disorders; it was also used to treat shortness of breath, from which Lear suffers elsewhere in the play

From Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

Hamlet speculates on the former identity of a skull.

HAMLET: … This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of all his fines and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

statutes legal documents that secured a debt on land and property (roughly similar to a mortgage)

recognizances legal documents that formally acknowledged a debt 

fines … recoveries legal processes concerned with securing the outright ownership of land

double vouchers refers to the practice of having two people vouch for a claimant's ownership of the land 

fine … fines end of his fines (the sense of 

fine then shifts to 'elegant, handsome', and then to 'finely powdered')

vouch guarantee 

the … indentures land (i.e. his grave) only as long and wide as a legal document 

pair of indentures two copies of an agreement drawn up on the same sheet of paper, which was then halved along a zigzag line to form documents that, when placed together, were a unique match

conveyances deeds relating to the transfer of land and property (plays on the sense of 'light-fingered theft, sleight of hand')

lie plays on the sense of 'fib' 

box deed-box/coffin 

inheritor i.e.owner.

Developed with Macmillan and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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