Just like William Shakespeare, our show is supported by patrons. If you enjoy listening to the show and exploring all the history shared on our site, please conside becoming a patron. This website contains affiliate links.

\Welcome to Episode 225 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

When you hear the term “hobby horse” you may be tempted to recall images of toy wooden horses that children laugh and play on. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, this term refers to a particular kind of dance that featured in popular celebrations like May Day and Morris dances. The hobby horse dance was a characterized and often costumed representation of a person riding a horse, and it was a staple feature of these celebratory dances. Our guest this week has written extensively about the history of the hobby horse and where they would have appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We are delighted to welcome Professor at Eotvos Lorand University of Budapest and the author of Shakespeare’s Hobby-Horse and Early Modern Popular Culture, Dr. Natalia Pikli.

Please leave us a rating & review to help others discover the show.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay

Subscribe to get the latest episodes in your inbox.

Dr Natália Pikli is Associate Professor at the Department of English Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. She is the current President of the Hungarian Shakespeare Committee. Her research interests are wide-ranging, with a strong focus on early modern popular culture, Shakespeare, theatre, drama, cheap print and emblems, besides the present-day reception of Shakespeare in the theatre and popular culture. She has published extensively on these topics, and contributed chapters to several books. Her articles came out, for instance, in Shakespearean Criticism (Gale, USA), European Journal of English Studies, Journal of Early Modern Studies (Florence) Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge). She edited/co-edited five books and is the author of two monographs, The Prism of Laughter:  Shakespeare’s ’very tragical mirth’ (VDM Verlag, 2009) and Shakespeare’s Hobby-Horse and Early Modern Popular Culture (Routledge, 2022). In her free time she directs amateur student performances and writes theatre reviews. 

I'll be asking Natalia Pikli about:

  • Were hobby horses always performed with a person dressed as a horse, or were they sometimes a person riding a fake horse, almost like a stick-horse, for example?
  • What is it about the purpose of a Morris dance that it was considered essential to have a hobby horse be depicted for one of these performances?
  •  hakespeare mentions the hobby horse phrase 7 times in his plays, at least twice suggesting that it is bad for the hobby horse to be forgot (this phrase “the hobby horse is forgot”) comes up in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Was the hobby horse a symbol of good luck, such that forgetting the hobby horse was seen as a bad omen? Why was it significant to forget the hobby horse? 
  • …and more!

Bonus History Content

These images were provided by the guest this week, Natalia Pikli, as a gift to our listeners. Her description of the images is provided for you here:

…the Betley Window (in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and the landscape painting, The Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace, for long mistakenly attributed to Vinckenboom’s school (c. 1620) – they are the two early modern depictions of the morris hobby-horse. The last picture is an emblem from Henry Peacham's emblem book Minerva Britanna (London, 1612), and features the toy hobby-horse both in image and text. 

Resources Natalia Pikli Recommends:

Please note that for the scholarly works, I am linking you to them on Amazon, but scholarly/academic publications are notoriously prohibitively expensive. I recommend you use these titles for your research, but if you are an independent scholar or not supported by an institution, take these titles to the library (you can take a photo of the page with your phone for easy transport) and get a free readable copy there. All the titles listed here contain valuable information for studying hobby horses further, and I legitimately recommend them to you, I am just acknowledging simultaneously that academic publications are not typically reasonable to purchase for people (like me) who buy hundreds of books each year. Where the book listed is less than $50 to buy, I've highlighted it for you.

Mary Ellen Lamb: The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser and Jonson (New York, Routledge, 2006) 


John Forrest: The History of Morris Dancing, 1438-1750 (Cambridge, James Clark and Co., 1999)https://utorontopress.com/9781442681453/the-history-of-morris-dancing-1438-1750/ 

Francois Laroque: Shakespeare's Festive World. Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge University Press, 1993)  Francois Laroque is a guest of That Shakespeare Life, he visits with us to talk about Twelfth Night.

Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England. The Ritual Year 1400-1700. Oxford University Press, 2001.   (Used paperback version is $16 at the time of writing this book. New Hardback is over $100)

Shakespeare and Elizabethan Popular Culture, eds. Stuart Gillespie and Neil Rhodes. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.  

Violet Alford, The Hobby Horse and other Animal Masks. London, Merlin Press, 1978.  

E.C. Cawte, Ritual Animal Disguise. A Historical and Geographical Study of Animal Disguise in the British Isles. Cambridge and Totowa: D.S. Brewer, 1978.  This book is currently out of print. Library is your best choice for finding this one. I did check, my local library has it, so if you can't get it at yours, you can ask for it on Interlibrary loan.

Alan Brissenden, “Shakespeare and the Morris,” The Review of English Studies 30, no.117 (1979), 1-11. 

Jane Garry, “The Literary History of the English Morris Dance”, Folklore, 94. No. 2. (1983), 219-228.  (FYI I'm a member at JSTOR, you can join as an independent scholar and get access to journal articles like this one for $20/month. Unlimited reading and up to 10 downloads/month).

Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, London and New York: Routledge, 1995.  

Tiffany Stern. Documents of Performance in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.  

Kevin de Ornellas. The Horse in Early Modern English Culture. Bridled, Curbed, and Tamed. Madison-Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017.  

“the ‘obby ‘oss” capturing a maiden at the Padstow Mayday festival in 2005. | SGBailey at English Wikipedia | Public Domain | Source

Hobby Horse was a Friendly Character

The hobby horse was a friendly character, but with some decidedly aggressive characteristics. As Natalia explains, the hobby horse is expected to be something of a woman chaser, and the entire presentation has undertones of sexual connotations.

A friendly character, although not without aggression. It is a playful and a bit sexual kind of aggression that the hobby horse represents. If you look at the depictions of the hobby horse, it was easy for the man to drag a girl under the skirt and do whatever he wanted there, so it was also a character that interacted with the audience in a sexual themed way. In a 1614 pamphlet, Cobbes Prophecies, we find the description for a country morris dance [she quotes here]. The association of the hobby horses with having fun together was a kind of sexual play and one more aspect of the hobby horse was that in interacting with the audience it asked for donations from the onlookers (sometimes the fool and other times the hobby horse man).

Illustration from an article, “Staffordshire Folk and their Lore.” 1896 Source: Journal Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution & Custom volume 7. 1896. London, Folk-lore Society. Copy held at University of Toronto. Image is Public Domain | Source

Hobby Horse Came in Two Main Varieties

I think of the term hobby horse as a play thing for children, something like this toy riding horse, but for Shakespeare it was a phrase used to describe a man dressed in a costume for the purpose of acting the fool during a celebratory dance. When the bard mentions the hobby horse in his plays, it would be similar to someone describing a major figure we call to mind easily like a “Jack of All Trades” or even “A Talk Show Host” It's a title, with a job in performance, that you understand what general stereotypes you're invoking there. Natalia explains,

There are two major types of hobby horses: (1) Skull and pole (stick with a skull attached and a man is holding it up), it is a two-legged creature. This folkloric version appears in many regions around Europe. There are some examples in GB, like the pastoral horse, etc.  (2) Tourney style horse–this is the one she features in her book. It’s a hobby horseman, a man, wearing a full horse’s body around his waist (made of wickerwork , covered in cloth, head, tail, etc, and the man sticks up out the middle as the rider of the horse. And there are even stirrups and faux legs)  This is the one that appears in the painting from Shakespeare’s time–very popular for Shakespeare.

A photo of a Mari Lwyd, from the Welsh tradition, a kind of hobby horse, this is the version with a horse head on a stick. |This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. |
R. fiend
| Source

Hobby Horse and the Morris Dance

The hobby horse was a part of a major pop culture occurrence for Shakespeare's lifetime, and that's the Morris Dance. A Morris dance was done in celebration of various events, including May Day, and was often performed by peasants. It was considered inappropriate to perform this kind of dance before royalty. The story itself evoked images of Merry Old England, retelling stories and tales about Robin Hood and his merry band of men. Natalia explains,

The dance itself has various forms and types appearing in various contexts throughout Europe but when we focus on Shakespeare’s period: the type that was popular in England in the 16th century was a set of dancers (4, 6, or 8), only men dancing with high leaps, representing vitality and fertility, wearing sleeves with ribbons and bells on their calves. It was a lively and noisy country dance, with the fool and the hobby horse, Maid Marian, and occasionally Friar Tuck was added. The hobby horse and the Morris dance became very popular by the end of the 16th century as symbols of pop culture but they were never absolutely attached, so the hobby horse was very popular but not indispensable in the Morris dance. 

A scan from a print of a 35mm transparency which SiGarb took of the Antrobus Soul Cakers at the end of a performance in a village hall in or near Antrobus, Cheshire, England in the mid 1970s. The Soul Cakers are a traditional group of mummers, who perform around All Soul's Day (October 31st, Hallowe'en) each year. The characters are (left to right) Beelzebub, Doctor, Black Prince, Letter-In, Dairy Doubt, King George, Driver, Old Lady, and Dick, the Wild Horse in the foreground. | Photographer: Simon Garbutt (SiGarb) | Source | Public Domain

Hobby Horse was the Star of the Show

In addition to being a common character that was a beloved addition to performances, the hobby horse was also the one responsible for collecting the money at street shows.

[The hobby horse was] a friendly character, although not without aggression. It is a playful and a bit sexual kind of aggression that the hobby horse represents. If you look at the depictions of the hobby horse, it was easy for the man to drag a girl under the skirt and do whatever he wanted there, so it was also a character that interacted with the audience in a sexual themed way. In a 1614 pamphlet, Cobbes Prophecies , we find the description for a country Morris dance [she quotes here]. The association of the hobby horses having fun together with the girls was a kind of sexual play, and one more aspect of the hobby horse was that in interacting with the audience it asked for donations from the onlookers (sometimes the fool and other times the hobby horseman). 

A most unusual group of masked mummers or guisers performing outside Winster Hall, Derbyshire, England, circa 1870, with three hobby horses (one of the “mast” type, made with a painted horse skull; the two others are of unusual construction). One performer, in a long dress, is sweeping with a besom broom; two others (extreme left and right) are playing bladder and string.| Photographer: Possibly Llewellyn Jewitt | (Original print of this photo belongs to Derbyshire County Library) Scanned from a halftone original and reduced in size to lose the halftone dots.| Public Domain | Source

Hobby Horse in Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare mentions the hobby horse phrase 7 times in his plays, at least twice suggesting that it is bad for the hobby horse to be forgot (this phrase “the hobby horse is forgot”) comes up in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Natalia explains that forgetting the hobby horse had cultural connotations specific to Shakespeare's lifetime.

First of all, the hobby horse being forgot was a kind of set phrase around 1600. There are many pamphlets that mention the phrase almost literally in the same format. Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Will Kemp’s pamphlet about his Morris dance include that phrase almost verbatim, and there are other entertainment records from 1603 and 1609 which use this phrase, so this was a viral phrase at the time. Scholarly opinion has held that it is a line from a lost ballad, but there is no such ballad. Many ballads are lost, but there were around 4 million circulating, so only a fragment remains, but there must have been a folk song, dancing folksong, that contained this line. 

In Hamlet, Shakespeare was a tricky author, the more you study his works and his age, you realize how tricky he was. The word “hobby horse” had 5 different meanings in his time, and people used these meanings, and only one of them was the hobby horse performance. It could also refer to a small horse of Irish origin, the toy horse for children, a whore, and also a fool, and in association it could also mean a kind of trifle or thing of no value. These meanings were all used in the late 16-early 17 century by people of the time, that’s why the hobby horse contained many meanings so they could understand it at different meanings. In Hamlet, just before the Mousetrap scene, when they are preparing to watch a play, and we’ve had many references to Ophelia and about lying in her lap, and then there’s the passage about the hobby horse being forgotten. The hobby horse by the end of the 16th century is a partly remembered and partly forgotten phenomenon, it belongs to an age that was seen by most people of Shakespeare’a life as bygone golden age, “Merry Old England”, a period, when everything was better. The bygone age for Shakespeare was strongly associated with the hobby horse. It was a viral phrase and refers to old Hamlet, his father’s time, but because it’s also in the context of sexual flirting with Ophelia, the meaning of the hobby horse as a loose woman lingers in the background. 

Mummers performing a stage play of St. George and the Dragon featuring hobby horsemen. called “Combat de Saint Georges et du Dragon à Mons (Belgique)” 19thC | Public Domain | Source

Hobby Horse as an Insult

The hobby horse was a phrase used to describe a whore in early modern England. So when we see this phrase applied to women (sometimes even by other women) in Shakespeare's plays, it was a direct insult and slander against them.

Shakespeare uses the hobby horse in LLL to refer to his “love” being called a hobby horse, and then in A Winter’s Tale, Leontes refers to his wife by calling her a hobby horse. Natalia explains the cultural significance of these references and why these characters are referring to their partners as hobby horses: 

Insults definitely. In this meaning the word means a loose woman, a prostitute. In Love’s Labour’s Lost it is used as an insult. Moth’s talking to Don Armado, the Spanish knight, who answers ’callst thou my love a hobby horse’…etc. This reference to a loose woman is but reaffirmed in the meaning as a loose woman, a hackney–that’s a hired horse. In Othello, the habitual use is all turned upside down because in a play that resonates with love and whoring, there is an actual prostitute who uses this word in this way, which is unusual – for a woman to use it to a man. Cassio is giving Bianca, his prostitute the handkerchief, and with the words “take the pattern out”. Bianca is offended and says “give it to your hobby horse”, that is, here a woman is calling another woman a hobby horse, in an act of defiance. In The Winter’s Tale the King of Sicily, Leontes, calls his beautiful, virtuous and pregnant wife a hobby horse, which launches a series of tragedies.

This image shows bells on the legs of a Morris dancer, the same bells that Natalia mentions in the episode today as being responsible for the loud and raucous sound level that a morris dance was known for. Moriskentänzer, one of 16 (now 10) wood Morris Dancers by Erasmus Grasser, Munich Stadtmuseum, 1480. Plaster cast in Pushkin museum. (Are missing the most important persons of dance – Fair lady, Musician and Jester). | Photo by user:shakko | Source | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Hobby Horse Sometimes Political

Hobby horses were used as symbols for political devices, something like how a cry-baby or a lame duck imagery might be applied today. They were also used to insult political figures or to comment on political events.

With a political edge, it was first used in the 1580s-1590s, in the controversy around the bishops and Puritans, and we have one of the Marprelate Tracts, where the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hired man is called a hobby horse. That’s a politically abusive term but it seems to disappear as a political term for a while, and reappears in the 1620s, when the entire idea of popular culture becomes a site of contention between the King and the Puritans. This is when James  I issues his decree, The Book of Sports, defending pastimes and there’s a kind of unity and association between the King and common people as opposed to Puritan sects. We have a play by Fletcher, Women Pleased, performed in 1620, in which the hobby horse is fought over about whether to include it in the Morris dance. It’s called the Beast of Babylon by the Puritan character and his wife, followed by many abusive terms in the play. For example, its' mother is ”Mare of Ignorance”, etc. 

English Elizabethan clown Will Kempe dancing a jig from Norwich to London in 1600. Source. Public Domain

Hobby Horse in Two Noble Kinsmen

Natalia’s work mentions Two Noble Kinsmen specifically in relation to the hobby horse and the portrayal of a mad woman of a Morris dance.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, is a collaborative play by Fletcher and Shakespeare, in 1613, a time when Shakespeare is starting to retire, giving his playwriting tasks to Fletcher and the company, The King’s Men. They worked together on Cardenio, a lost play, and Henry VIII, or All is True. Scholars debate which scenes belong to which playwright, but I agree with Lois Potter, who said they were collaborating throughout and revising each other’s scenes.  The morris dance scenes, referring to the country dance and the hobby horses, probably mostly belong to Fletcher, but it’s hard to tell if it’s Fletcher or Shakespeare talking about the hobby horse in this play, but especially because it’s unusual. There is no actual hobby horses, there’s a baboon (bavian) monkey figure, which is a sexual figure, with a long “tool” and the Jailer’s Daughter joins them to have an equal number of women and men. She joins the morris dance, which is partly typical but partly not typical. It is typical that countrymen perform for aristocrats, and there’s a schoolmaster directing them, and also there are sexual references. But there’s not a hobby horse, but a bavian. Also women appearing as actual dancers is atypical. There’s a royal masque written by Beaumont in 1613 a little earlier, that features women and men at the royal entertainment before Queen Anne, and Princess Elizabeth, it could not include the hobby horse because it was unseemly for royal entertainments. 

The Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen: she falls in love with a knight and it’s hopeless, and she knows that this love is hopeless, and she has no means to get to him, but she cannot stop loving him. So she goes mad, and while mad, she sings all kinds of country and bawdy songs, and talks about a hobby horse to his father, a gift horse, that is, a love gift, but it’s all imagination, and that’s when she mentions the hobby horse in connection with this imaginary love gift of a horse, mixing traditional discourses about horses. The horse can even read and write, and symbolizes the deviation the Jailer’s Daughter represents. 

Morris Dance Demonstration

I found this video of a modern day recreation of a morris dance where you can see the dancers and the bells on their legs. It is a good representation of what street festivals and country performances might have been like for Shakespeare's lifetime.

Man dressed as a Fool/"Molly" for a morris dance
One extra picture, just because. This guy is not a hobby horse, but he is the Fool character you heard Natalia talk about in today's show. He's a modern interpretation, and not strictly connected to Shakespeare, but he's so jolly, and such a fun representation of Morris dances that still happen around England, I had to include his picture. More information on this guy and his costume at the source page. | Public Domain | Photographer: Steve rlm at English Wikipedia