Notes and Queries, Number 46, September 14, 1850 eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 42 pages of information about Notes and Queries, Number 46, September 14, 1850.


The meaning ofDrink up eisellIn Hamlet.

Few passages have been more discussed than this wild challenge of Hamlet to Laertes at the grave of Ophelia: 

  “Ham.  I lov’d Ophelia! forty thousand brothers
  Could not, with all their quantity of love,
  Make up my sum.  What wilt thou do for her?

  —­Zounds! show me what thou’lt do? 
  Woo’t weep?  Woo’t fight?  Woo’t fast?  Woo’t tear

  Woo’t drink up Eisell? eat a crocodile?

  I’ll do’t”.

The sum of what has been said may be given in the words of Archdeacon Nares: 

“There is no doubt that eisell meant vinegar, nor even that Shakspeare has used it in that sense; but in this passage it seems that it must be put for the name of a Danish river....  The question was much disputed between Messrs. Steevens and Malone:  the former being for the river, the latter for the vinegar; and he endeavored even to get over the drink up, which stood much in his way.  But after all, the challenge to drink vinegar, in such a rant, is so inconsistent, and even ridiculous, that we must decide for the river, whether its name be exactly found or not.  To drink up a river, and eat a crocodile with his impenetrable scales, are two things equally impossible.  There is no kind of comparison between the others.”

I must confess that I was formerly led to adopt this view of the passage, but on more mature investigation I find that it is wrong.  I see no necessary connection between eating a crocodile and drinking up eysell; and to drink up was commonly used for simply to drink.  Eisell or Eysell certainly signified vinegar, but it was certainly not used in that sense by Shakspeare, who may in this instance be his own expositor; the word occurring again in his CXIth sonnet.

  “Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
  Potions of eysell, ’gainst my strong infection;
  No bitterness that I will bitter think,
  Nor double penance, to correct correction.”

Here we see that it was a bitter potion which it was a penance to drink.  Thus also in the Troy Book of Lydgate: 

  “Of bitter eysell, and of eager wine.”

Now numerous passages in our old dramatic writers show that it was a fashion with the gallants of the time to do some extravagant feat, as a proof of their love, in honour of their mistresses; and among others the swallowing some nauseous potion was one of the most frequent; but vinegar would hardly have been considered in this light; wormwood might.

In Thomas’s Italian Dictionary, 1562, we have “Assentio, Eysell” and Florio renders that word by vinegar.  What is meant, however, is Absinthites or Wormwood wine, a nauseously bitter medicament then much in use; and this being evidently {242} the bitter potion of Eysell in the poet’s sonnet, was certainly the nauseous draught proposed to be taken by Hamlet among the other extravagant feats as tokens of love.  The following extracts will show that in the poet’s age this nauseous bitter potion was in frequent use medicinally.

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Notes and Queries, Number 46, September 14, 1850 from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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