Lacking inspiration for a Word of the Day article on the day that it all kicks off in South Africa, I freely admit that I’m taking the obvious subject. Expect other articles in due course on ‘Tennis’, and any other seasonal events that come to mind. The word ‘football’ occurs only twice in all Shakespeare’s oeuvre, once in The Comedy of Errors and once in King Lear. In the latter, the term is Kent’s insult of choice when he attacks Goneril’s servant, Oswald, calling him
you base football player
Before sending the man sprawling. The insult tells us a few things about what the Elizabethans understood as ‘football’, which was for them a far less decorous game that the one whose World Cup begins today.Kent’s insult may even pick up on puritan efforts to ban football, a campaign strengthened by the violence and damages of the sport. Around the same time as King Lear’s first performance, the authorities in Manchester were complaining that
With the ffotebale…[there] hath beene greate disorder in our towne of Manchester we are told, and glasse windowes broken yearlye and spoyled by a companie of lewd and disordered persons …
However, football was saved from too much persecution by the pious James I, who wrote, in his Book of Sports that Christians should play football every Sunday afternoon after worship. But was it really a game involving feet only? After all, it would be difficult to cause all that damage in Manchester, even with the skills (and temperament) of a Zidane. The other use of the word in Shakespeare’s works, does, however, suggest that the sport was beginning to focus on the relationship between ball and foot by Shakespeare’s time:
DROMIO OF EPHESUS Am I so round with you, as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather…
“Spurn” here means ‘to kick away‘ (this original, now obsolete, sense dates back to 1000AD, and survives in our modern ‘spur’), thus hinting at the increasing importance of the feet. Other details here are also revealing: that the ball was spherical, and thus different from the rugby ball; and that the casement was made of leather, a material still used in many footballs, if not that of the current World Cup, which is made out of ethylene-vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes – with a latex bladder.
Footballs are not the only spherical things in The Comedy of Errors: Antipholus of Syracuse describes his search for his long-lost family as the search of one water drop for another in an ocean, and there is also the memorable description of the nymphomaniac maid in search of Dromio’s heart:
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE In what part of her body stands Ireland?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Oh, sir, I did not look so low.
Although football is not mentioned here, perhaps we have in The Comedy of Errors – with its many peregrinations, its cosmopolitan references to countries all over the world, its obsession with money, its hints that footballs were to be kicked and made of leather – the beginnings of the modern game, and, in Dromio’s kitchen wench, the earliest recorded WAG.