“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ninepennyworth:

    I suppose you are right about my main point. For instance, I recently ran across “What ho” in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. In Chapter VI Leonard and his trashy mistress Jacky greet each other with “what ho”s.

    But your last point seems a bit off. I don’t think there’s anything in all of Shakespeare that rivals “Uncle Fred Flits By.”


  2. In my humble opinion these particular expressions are fairly common across a wide span of English usage from Elizabethian to Edwardian, and broader even than that alliteration, but that is not to say that Plum would not have been reading Cylbeline and “borrowing” freely. He took a Complete Works of W_ S_ to civil internment and, as I like to say, some the Bard’s best bits rival Wodehouse.

  3. Thanks! — should’ve done this search myself.

    So what we see is that Shakespeare used “beastly” pretty freely, but only three times did he put it in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave,” a line that should have come to my mind, since I know Lear pretty well), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

    I don’t doubt that Bertie Wooster and his pals picked up both “what ho” and “beastly” from the Shakespeare they were exposed to during their school days, and made it part of their slang. But Cymbeline is still the only Shakespeare play in which these two characteristic Wodehouse phrases are used in close proximity. I have no way of guessing whether, at Dulwich College, Wodehouse would have gotten so deeply into Shakespeare as to read Cymbeline, but feel sure that since Wodehouse continued to read Shakespeare for pleasure all his life, he surely read Cymbeline eventually. The speech with both “beastly” and “what ho” must have jumped out at him!

  4. Instances of “beastly” in Shakespeare:
    You beastly knave, know you no reverence? King Lear: II, ii
    We are beastly, subtle as the fox for prey, Cymbeline: III, iii
    Was beastly dumb’d by him. Antony and Cleopatra: I, v
    To overcome him: in that beastly fury Timon of Athens: III, v
    Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him, King Henry IV, part II: I, iii
    The form of a beast. o jove, a beastly fault! and Merry Wives of Windsor: V, v
    Such beastly shameless transformation, King Henry IV, part I: I, i
    Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brain’d war, Timon of Athens: V, i
    O barbarous, beastly villains, like thyself! Titus Andronicus: V, i
    Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish. King Richard III: I, iv
    No grace? no womanhood? ah, beastly creature! Titus Andronicus: II, iii
    Mine own house, and that most beastly: in good King Henry IV, part II: II, i
    Like beasts which you shun beastly, and may save, Cymbeline: V, iii
    Infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly Coriolanus: II, i
    In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field. Toilus and Cressida: V, x
    His beastly mind to us, he hath a court Cymbeline: I, vi
    From their abominable and beastly touches Measure for Measure: III, ii
    Fie on her! see, how beastly she doth court him! The Taming of the Shrew: IV, ii
    Being a very beastly creature, lays claim to me. The Comedy of Errors: III, ii
    A beastly ambition, which the gods grant thee t’ Timon of Athens: IV, iii

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