Access over 150 additional episodes in our back catalog on Patreon! Join today at

It’s Shakespeare’s Birthday this week! Happy Birthday Shakespeare! To celebrate, we’re going to play some card games! From Noddy and Maw to Laugh and Lie Down, card games were popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime, with records from the court of King James and Elizabeth I outlining games played, losses incurred, and even insults traded between dignitaries all over the playing of card games. Shakespeare himself mentions a few of these games in his plays by name including Noddy, Primrose, and Laugh and Lie Down. When it comes to early modern card games, no one knows more about the games, their history, and how to play them than internationally renowned game expert David . If you are an Experience Shakespeare patron on Patreon or followed me on YouTube where we have played some of these early modern games for ourselves, you will be familiar with David ’s name, having seen and heard me mention his work as we relied on his research to put together those activities. I am very honored and quite delighted to welcome David Parlett to the show today to share with us some of the history of card games, how they were played, and their place in society for the life of William Shakespeare.  

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay 

David Parlett spent years as a teacher before becoming a freelance writer for Games & Puzzles magazine 1974-1980. He is the author of the book A History of Card Games, as well as the Oxford Guide to Card Games, and the Oxford History of Board Games, among several others. David writes and run his website where he details the history and mechanics of several card games and board games from Shakespeare’s lifetime as well as for centuries before and after the bard.

Watch the video version of today’s episode inside That Shakespeare Film Library on Patreon.

I’ll be asking David Parlett about:

  • We have multiple records of Kings and Queens playing at, losing at, and causing issues over the playing of cards, but were playing cards a luxury for the elite in England or would the games have been played in regular everyday households as well?  
  • Let’s look at some specific card game references that come up in Shakespeare’s plays. In his play, Two Noble Kinsmen, in Act 2 Scene 1, Emilia is talking with a woman. Emilia says “I am wondrous merry-hearted. I could laugh now.” and the woman replies “I could lie down, I am sure.” I have read this is a reference to the game, Laugh and Lie Down. David, can you tell us more about the game Laugh and Lie Down and what we should know about the history of the game when we see it here in this play?  
  • On his website, David outlines the game of Noddy, referencing a 1610 publication by J. Day as saying “By plaieing to much at primeroe and noddy he lost / Time and his monie to[o].” Shakespeare references Noddy, the game, specifically in his play Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Proteus says “that set together is Noddy.” David, what records do we have about this game and do we know how it was intended to be played? 
  • …and more!
  • Michael Dummet, The Game of Tarot, 📚 very highly regarded philosopher at Oxford, he wrote a book on tarot cards. History of Tarot cards, it is a vast book and before he gets round to the tarot cards, he spends several chapters on the history of card games. The Game of Tarot (1981)  This book is currently out of print. It is a collector’s item that you can find it for over $500 USD on Amazon, but I recommend the library or checking out sites like Thrift Books or Abe Books.
  • Thierry Depaulis, History of Bridge, written in French. Only available at Amazon Canada
  • Join the International Playing Cards Society—that publishes a journal that freqwuenrtly includes descriptiosn of card games.  Very often local and regional card games and Europe but these in themselves have a long history and no one would write about one of these without saying where they came from or how they started, so that’s a good resource as well.  

David Parlett is the authoritative expert on the history of card games having written over 28 titles on cards, earning an honorary doctorate for his work by the University of Suffolk in 2017. You can see some of his published titles here.

“she, Eros, has Pack’d cards with Caesar, and false-play’d my glory…”

— Antony and Cleopatra (IV.14))

The Card Players by Lucas van Leyden c. 1550/1599 Source Public Domain

The actual cards themselves used in play

I have read that French cards were particularly popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and that starting in the 15th century, French manufacturers assigned to each of the court cards names taken from history, The Bible, and mythology. That meant that when you were playing a game, the face cards as we call them today, would often represent real people. For example, there are rumors that Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards in England for nearly 500 years. Another rumor has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII.

Recreation of Pierre Marechal of Rouen, c.1567 pack illustrated by Gurney Benham’s in his book. The original Jacks of Hearts and Diamonds were missing but have been replaced with two similar cards also from Rouen. Published by Rose & Pentagram Design, 2006, read the review Images courtesy Rod Starling. Source

Different cards were often given special names. In general terms, the “Flatback” (K♠) , “Countenance” (Q♥) , “Roger” (J♥), and “Knave Noddy” was the Jack card of the trump suit during play. Starting in the 15th century, French manufacturers assigned to each of the court cards names taken from history, The Bible, and mythology. As David points out, these names were added to the cards for marketing value, and the potraits themselves were not done in the likeness of the royalty whose name was applied.

Not associated with any mythical or real people, but sometimes card makers would put [the names of real people] on the cards, and one reason they might have done that is because English card games of that period were influenced by Tarot games, invented in the early 15th century. Tarot cards only know them as fortune telling and occult cards, but they were originally designed as a card games, separate from the card games we have today, and those characters had names, and the idea of putting names on cards came from Tarot Cards, and ordinary playing cards thought it would be more fun to attach names to real names of Kins and Queens.  

Eagle eyed Tudor historians will note that the rose on the Jack of Hearts looks very much like a Tudor Rose, but it is not. This rose and crown symbol is not the famous Red Rose of Lancaster, but instead was often used in this manner with the crown as the symbol for the Queen of France. Remember, it’s a French deck of cards. 

Evolution of the King of Hearts from 1567 to 1890. It started out as a King holding a halberd, but English card makers increasingly misjudged the space they had available for the King, resulting in eventually the entire halberd was cut off, replaced with a knife, and that’s why we know him as the suicide King today, because he looks like he’s stabbing his own head. Source

A fun fact about English card makers is when they did copy the cards from the French, they were bad at it. In 1567 Pierre Marechal draws the King of Hearts holding an halberd, looking ready to the defend the Kingdom in Battle. However, when the English card makers copied this design over, they didn’t leave room for the head of the axe, thus cutting it off, resulting in the 19th century King of Hearts now holding a knife, and seemingly stabbing it into his own head, which is why today this card is known as the suicide King. 

“Have I not here the best cards for the game, To win this easy match play’d for a crown?”

— King John (V.2)

After the English banned importing of French cards in 1628, the English replicated the French cards and started circulating them domestically, but historically if you are trying to replicate what William Shakespeare would have played with himself, it’s closer to historically accurate to use a 15th century French deck of cards than it is to use a 17th century English one.

David points out that the connections between actual figures of the period and the playing cards was not substantial enough for anyone to have gotten in trouble for playing specific card games (at least not for insulting anyone).

England first acquired cards from France, and so they used French suit symbols, which didn’t develop until the 14th century. So 16th century cards in Shakespeare’s lifetime would have been French because they were available. There were English card makers available, but because cards first came in from France and there was a good trade as far as the French were concerned, we used cards that were of the “Rouen” design, in the North of France. Nearest trading place with Southern England.  

Peasants Playing Cards by Norbert vanBloemen (1670-1746) Source Public Domain

Card Games of Kings, Queens, and The Regular Folk

We have multiple records of Kings and Queens playing at, losing at, and causing issues over the playing of cards, but playing cards was a past time that would have passed along to the regular folk as well.

They would’ve been played at the landed aristocracy, as well as the courts, and it would have trickled down. If you were a family that played cards, you have expensively produced cards, and those got missing or spoilt, and you could afford to buy another pack, that old pack trickled down to the servants, but playing cards in those days was an urban pastime than a rural one…In the sticks, so to speak, people who liked to gamble would have preferred dice games. And perhaps backgammon as well.   

In his play, Two Noble Kinsmen, in Act 2 Scene 1, Emilia is talking with a woman. Emilia says “I am wondrous merry-hearted. I could laugh now.” and the woman replies “I could lie down, I am sure.” David explains this reference to the game Laugh and Lie Down and what we should know about the history of the game when we see it here in this play:

It belongs to a family of games that’s unknown in England and not played much, but known in American casinos, and is in turn an Italian game. The object of the game is to collect pairs of cards that go together. 8 cards each, 12 face up on the table, at each turn you can play a card and capture one or three cards of the same rank, you gradually build up 3 cards and 4 of a kind.  Eventually there comes a part where you d on’t have any in your hand to match what’s on the table, and you have to lay down what’s left. That becomes part of what can be picked up and when you did that, it’s called Lie down, or lay down, and people would laugh at you.  

On his website, David outlines the game of Noddy, referencing a 1610 publication by J. Day as saying “By plaieing to much at primeroe and noddy he lost / Time and his monie to[o].” Shakespeare references Noddy, the game, specifically in his play Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Proteus says “that set together is Noddy.”

The best descriptions of Noddy come from a later century, in the 17th century, and one of them is particularly good. There’s a character an antiquarian Francis Willoughby, 1665, writing a book on card games for his own amusement, it wasn’t published until the early part of the 21st century. Noddy is the forerunner of Cribbage. It’s basically Cribbage without the Crib. It’s called Noddy because the central character was called knave noddy. If you turn up the Knave (jack as we now call it) and it was called the knave noddy. It was worth extra points. It’s basically like cribbage and anyone who plays that game knows how it goes, but it had some refinements with extra bits and pieces. Example: when you are playing to 31, you score for when you make 15 or 31, but in noddy you also score when you make up 25. Someone came up with the crib is how we got Cribbage [from Noddy].

““Let not me take you at noddy anie more, least I present you to the parish for a gamster.”

— Thomas Nashe, An Almonde for a Parrot, 1589

Maw was an extremely popular card game during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Popular even under Elizabeth I, the game would achieve official status under James I as the chief card game of the English court. King James himself is recorded in numerous places as being keen on the game, preferring to play it over other amusements. There’s even a piece of satire from 1626 which, in an artistic engraving, shows King James playing cards with the King of Demark and they are playing the game of Maw. 

While the word “maw” is used in Shakespeare’s plays, I was not able to find a quote which was definitely a reference to the card game, though many a pun is always possible. Most of the uses of the word “maw” in Shakespeare’s plays employe the definition meaning “jaws or throat of a voracious animal” (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary). However, there are references from Shakespeare’s lifetime that teach us about the popularity of the game:

The 1593 book, Greene’s Newes from Heaven & Hell to the Reader, states:

“Although the knave of trumpes be the seconde carde at Mawe, yet the five-finger may commaunde both him and all the rest of the pack.”

Maw, or its equivalent, was the national card game of Ireland and it developed from a Spanish game, of which we call “Ombre” (Alexander Pope Rape of the Locke about the play of this game) It’s a peculiar game if youre not used to that kind of kind of game. You can start thinking of Bridge, but chiefly, two of the suits ranked upside down so the lowest in cards was the highest in this game. It is still played in that game, the direct descendant of that is 25 and is still regarded as the national card game of Ireland”  

You can see the list of the laws for how to play on pages 123-125 (though the digital bar at the bottom will tell you it’s pages 121-123, but that does not correspond with the page numbers listed on the pages themselves). Google Books Source:

The official rules of Maw are outlined inside The Groom Porter’s Laws which appear in Ancient Ballads and Broadsides published in England in the sixteenth Century… as preserved in the Library of Henry Huth, London, 1867. I found this information on a page for Partlett Games where he says “There is a copy in the Bodleian Library. I am grateful to Thierry Depaulis for communicating this discovery.” Source:

Read the whole book here

Some other references you might enjoy if you really want to dive into the history of this game are these excellent books:

Arnold, Peter. The Book of Card Games. Christopher Helm: London, 1988.

Morehead, Albert H. The New Complete Hoyle Revised. Doubleday: NY, 1991.

Parlett, David. Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

“A sure card as ever won the set.”

— Titus Andronicus (V.1)

Screen capture of “Researches Into the History of Playing Cards: With Illustrations of the ...”By Samuel Weller Singer | Pg. 259 and one of three references to Maw in this book | Available as a free ebook at the Google Books link above | This 16th century text accuses King James of postponing a criminal execution because he wanted to finish a game of Maw. Source  It is written by Anthony Weldon, who is notoriously critical of James I, but hilarious nonetheless.

The King’s Card Holder

A reference to the King’s Card Holder occurs in The Court and Character of King James by Sir Anthony WeldonJanuary 1, 1650 | Pg. 35, when the card holder is recorded as saying: “His Majesty appears to have played at cards just as he played with affairs of State – in an indolent manner, requiring in both cases someone to hold his cards, if not to prompt him what to play.”

He was a great believer in the divine right of Kings and not to do anything that someone else could do for you. Or possibly that like the Groom porter where people are happy to do it.  

Some history scholars believe the Match Me in London play by Thomas Dekker is a play (pun intended) on the word “Match” which is used to describe the turn of play in the game of Maw. As Roslyn Knuston pointed out in conversation with me (not the podcast, but related to a conference we both attended) about this game,

“Nineteenth-century scholars, always eager to identify a lost play as an extant one, made an unenthusiastic connection between the Henslowe play and Thomas Dekker’s Match Me in London, which (as I’m sure you know) includes but by no means features a game of Mawe (not “featured” in the sense of being so prominent as to justify calling a whole play that). Scholars have also “revised” Henslowe’s wording of “seat” to be “set,” a word they think more likely for a play named for a card game but a word that has no evidentiary basis. And there the conversation ends.”

She provided this photograph to go along with her reference:

Walter Wilson Gregg (who I’m guessing is one of the 19th century scholars Dr. Knulston is referencing, since he calls the connection “incidental”) seems to suggest he thinks Match Me in London and Set/Seat at Mawe might be the same play, but recorded under different names when performed by different players.


He calls attention to Match Me in London being performed by Queen Anne’s Men (Henslowe’s Worcester’s Men officially patronized) in 1630, while Seat at Mawe was performed in 1594 by the Admiral’s Men, so I don’t know that I agree with him that there’s evidence from just that to suggest they are the same, though it might suggest plays about card games was popular.

I do think it’s relevant than a main part of the game, Maw, is the Jack, which is one of three trump cards in the game. If the play is about personifying the characters of the game (and obviously we have to guess since we don’t have a copy of the play itself), but capitalizing on the title, “Set at Maw” then the Jack/Knave/Fool character would have been a primary role, and Will Kempe (known for playing the clown/fool character) was with Queen Anne’s Men until his retirement, and while he died in 1603, and therefore could not have appeared on stage in Match Me in London from the Stationer’s Register’s recording of Dekker’s play in 1630, but he very well could have been the Jack character in “Set at Maw” from 1594 BUT that date suggests it’s under Elizabeth, not James, despite James having the greater reputation for liking the card game of Maw.

“Yet I have fac’d it with a card of ten.”

— Taming of the Shrew (II.1)

Since Elizabeth was still Queen in 1594, and the Groom Porter’s Laws titled “A collection of seventy-nine black-letter ballads and broadsides, printed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, between the years 1559 and 1597 : accompanied with an introd. and ill. notes”  If the title is accurate about the date, that means that Elizabeth I had an official set of rules for Maw at her royal court. Mary Queen of Scots (James I mother) is credited with having introduced Maw to the English court in the first place.

Martin Wiggins (Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 976.) makes the case that the traditional names for the various card games could make for a type of murder mystery play, using the characters of the card game as their basis for a plot.

There is also a lost play called “A Game at Cards” according to this source

In A Manual for the Collector and Amateur of Old English Plays by William Carew Hazlitt, he says that Henslowe also called “The Set at Maw” simply “The Maw”, and goes on to suggest that there is a record in the Revel’s Accounts, which defines “set at Maw’ to be “A Comedy or Moral devised on a game of the Cards on St. Stephen’s Night bt the Children of the Chapel.” Cards being an acknowledged way to celebrate holidays in  Shakespeare’s lifetime, it makes sense to me they would have done as Hazlitt claims and mark the occasion with a celebration of the card game on stage.


Robert Chambers in his The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in …, Volume 2 explains the game.

I love card games, and particularly the ones played in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We cover several card games on YouTube and inside our Patron’s area called “Experience Shakespeare” we have complete activity kits that include a list of instructions, supply lists, and bonus history guides about several cards games including Noddy, Maw, and Laugh and Lie Down. Find links to the YouTube episodes below and if you want to play along with us, join Experience Shakespeare on Patreon.

How to Play Maw (or Spoil Five)

How to Play One and Thirty (Elizabethan Card Game)

How to Play Laugh and Lie Down (16th C Card Game)

Did Shakespeare Play Cards?

How to Play Noddy

Comment and Share

If you like our show, please leave us a comment and a rating on the podcast platform you’re listening from today. Taking the time to rate us on Apple Podcasts or other platforms really helps our rankings and lets other people hear about the show. If you can drop us a rating and review, we’d really appreciate it!

If you’re listening right here in the show notes, please leave us a comment down below. We’d love to hear from you!

You can share this episode on social media to help more people hear about our show and the great history we talk about each week! Tweet this episode using this link or share the website on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIN.

If you want even more episode of That Shakespeare Life, be sure to check out our Patreon page. There’s over 150 additional episodes there that aren’t available on public listening platforms. PLUS there’s some great bonuses just for patrons.

That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!