Image Source: http://www.greydragon.org/library/playingbowls.html
When you think of the 16th century, you might recognize Shakespeare, theater, even horse drawn carriages or swords. But when it comes to games, the Elizabethans were surprisingly very adept at leisure activities including archery, soccer, and fencing. But did you know they also played bowling? That’s right—the same game you see featured in everything from The Big Lebowski to Tom and jerry cartoons and even the Vanderbilt mansion in North Carolina, was a popular game to play in 16th century London. Which is why this week, we are asking:
Did Shakespeare Play Bowling?
Elizabethans were into gambling almost as much as they were breathing so any game that allowed them to make a little cash with their play, was a sure bet.
The actual origins of bowling go back to the ancient Egyptians, but we have records in 14th century Germany that lawmakers were passing laws trying to prevent peasants from betting so heavily on games like bowling. Apparently, there was something of a gambling epidemic in Germany at the time with people going into massive debt over these games so officials starting regulating how much they could bet and even which days they could play the games.
The monarchy in England would often ban the playing of whatever games they didn’t like in order to promote to make fashionable the games they did like. Which is why in 1361 King Edward III banned bowling all together, hoping that by banning the game male citizens would focus on archery practice and be more ready for war.
Henry VI reversed that ban in 1455 and saw the creation of several all weather bowling alleys as the King and his nobles (or people wanting to look noble) built bowling alleys and played the game of bowling for their leisure time.
By 1541, after Whitehall Palace rebuilt their bowling lanes, Henry VIII declared that only the wealthy could bowl, passing a law that said the working class could only play bowling on Christmas Day, as part of the 12 Days of Christmas which was popular in Tudor England and was a general time of joy and rare frivolity for the working class.
Two years after Shakespeare died, King James issued the Declaration of Sports,which banned bowling on Sundays but did allow dancing and archery as long as one first attended a church service.
For William Shakespeare, there are many allusions to this game, in his plays. For him and his fellow Elizabethans, which the was played with a small ball, and the pin, called the jack, or sometimes termed the “mistress” was what the players aimed at. In some early versions of the game, there was only one pin.
In “Troilus and Cressida ” (iii. 2), Pandarus says:
“So, so; rub12 on, and kiss the mistress.” A bowl that kisses the jack, or mistress, is in the most advantageous position; hence “to kiss the jack” served to denote a state of great advantage.
In “Cymbeline” (ii. i), Cloten exclaims,
“Was there ever man had such luck! when I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away! I had a hundred pound on't.”
In Richard II, the Queen and her lady have a conversation which goes:
Lady: Madam, we'll play at bowls.
Queen. ‘Twill make me think the world is full of nibs,
And that my fortune runs against the bias”
the bias, was a weight inserted in one side of a bowl, in order to give it a particular inclination in bowling.
The opening where the weight was placed was sometimes called the “eye” which is the reference Stauton is making in King John when he says “ (ii. i):
“on the outward eye of fickle France
As a result of references like these, “To run against the bias,” became a proverb. It would take more linguistic investigation to declare Shakespeare the originator of that proverb, surely, but certainly the popularity of his plays and the dialogue of bowling helped solifiy this proverb into popular vernacular.
In the “Taming of the Shrew” (iv. 5) Petruchio says:
“Well, forward, forward! thus the bowl should run,
And not unluckily against the bias.”
Also in “Troilus and Cressida” (iv. 5), the term ” bias-cheek” is used to talk about a cheek swelling out like the bias of a bowl, which is another colloquial reference to bowling.
Interestingly, the bowling alleys of Shakesepare’s time were not indoor rooms like we have today. They were often outdoor, grassy courts played much like what you think of with croquet, as a lawn game.
Now—to answer the question As to whether or not Shakespeare played bowling?
My answer is “yes, probably.” Why do I think that?
Queen Elizabetli is supposed to have played at bowls. The famous account of Sir Waiter Raleigh playing at bowls when the Spanish Armada was siglited is probably apocryphal, but it shows how the game was a favored entertainment of Elizabethan Nobles.
With Shakespeare’s interest in Elizabeth, combined with his obvious goal of improving his social standing, he would have known about the game, and logically it follows he would have most likely played the game, and I believe that's the conclusion to which the references in his works attest.
This is a fascinating topic and there's tons to know. Here are a few places you can go to learn more.