Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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30 ‘Poor John’ – dried salted hake, a cheap meal of fish often served in Lent and the very opposite of ‘a pretty piece of flesh’. Gregory is playing upon the alternative meats of ‘flesh, fish or fowl.’

30 ‘draw thy tool’ – primarily meaning Sampson’s sword, but, then as now, a slang expression for the male member.

33 ‘My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will back thee.’ – Sampson picks up with broad humour on the secondary meaning of Gregory’s ‘draw thy tool’. He pushes his friend forward, to make the ‘quarrel’, confirming his cowardice.

36 ‘No, marry! I fear thee!’ – Gregory, who in his last two speeches has again been deliberately misunderstanding his fellow servant, makes it clear that he would never be afraid of the cowardly Sampson. The expression ‘marry’ – originally ‘by Mary (the Virgin)’ – has some of its original connotations as a mild oath here: its meaning is often as vague as modern ‘well’ in expressions like, ‘Well, let’s do it.’

37 ‘Let us take the law of our sides: let them begin.’ – Sampson’s bluster is almost entirely deflated, but Gregory says in his next line that he will frown as they pass and this spurs Sampson into the – genuinely provocative – biting of his thumb. The gesture was defined by Randle Cotgrave in his 1611 A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues as meaning ‘to threaten or defie by putting the thumbe naile into the mouth, and with a ierke [jerk] (from the upper teeth) make it to knack.’ It was more of a threatening gesture, therefore, than an insult, and is not of a sexual nature as is sometimes assumed.

41 ‘which is disgrace to them if their bear it.’ – See above: Sampson is saying that they must respond to the threatening gesture or lose face.

53-54 Abram. No better./ Samp. Well, sir.’ – The four servants almost manage to keep the peace, on the basis of the equality of their masters. Sampson’s ‘Well, sir’ is uttered in agreement. However, Gregory spots Benvolio (a Montague) coming towards them and judges that this puts the matter in their favour: three against two.

60 ‘washing blow’ – a form of ‘swashing’.

63 ‘What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds?’ – Benvolio (whose name means ‘of good will’) has drawn his own sword to part the four servants and keep the peace. Tybalt calls the latter ‘heartless hinds’ the primary meaning of which is ‘cowardly menials’, but as a hart is a male deer, the phrase can be understood to mean ‘women, with no real man to protect them’ – a veiled insult to Benvolio.

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William Shakespeare
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