Corky Arms.

Back in 2000, James Wood reviewed Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language for the Grauniad, and very appreciatively too:

You might say that this is Kermode treading his customary middle way between high theory and unmediated amateurism, but Shakespeare’s Language is a magnificent book, the honey of a lifetime’s visits to the Shakespearean garden, and makes great virtues of reasonable in-betweenness.

But this passage made me raise my eyebrows:

In the speech by Bushy, for instance, is Shakespeare trying to say something about shadows and tears and himself getting “muddled”? Or is he perfectly capable of greater clarity, but deliberately muddling things a little in order to give us the most direct sense possible of a mind struggling to express itself?

This is an inevitable tension in dramatic poetry. For instance, when Cornwall shouts out that his servants should bind fast Gloucester’s “corky arms”, listeners get a characteristically Shakespearean thrill of pleasure at the delicious justice of the word – the old man’s arms, white and crumbly, like cork. But it is hardly likely that a vicious aristocrat would have expressed himself as beautifully as this, and most listeners decide for them selves that this is Shakespeare the poet having his say – inserting into a character’s mouth a line of unlikely but lovely poetry.

I don’t understand how anyone literate, let alone such a fine critic as Wood, can seriously say “it is hardly likely that a vicious aristocrat would have expressed himself as beautifully as this.” It is hardly likely that he would have expressed himself in iambic pentameter, either. This seems to me on a level with complaining that opera is dumb because people don’t sing at each other. Am I missing something?


  1. Don’t vicious aristocrats always express themselves in beautiful language? It adds to their malevolence.

  2. CuConnacht says

    My quibble is with “white and crumbly, like cork.” Cork is not typically white.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve always assumed it meant something like “strong.” There seems actually to be no evidence for that whatsoever, which just goes to show.

    The entire scene is, of course, full of ophthalmic interest.

  4. LH: “This seems to me on a level with complaining that opera is dumb because people don’t sing at each other.”

    But Wood is not saying Shakespeare is dumb. He’s just saying that we all know that his poetic dialogue is not meant to be realistic. He also notes, earlier in the review: “For Kermode is bold enough to say that Shakespeare’s original audience could not possibly have followed the poetic complexities of his greatest soliloquies and speeches, any more than we are able to follow all of their densities today.”

    Exactly. But the genius of Shakespeare is that his drama nevertheless works at all levels, if performed right. His actors played to all parts of the audience — to the rabble in the standing-room dirt floor under the stage they played up the dirty double-entendres and fights; to the merchants and gentries in the box seats they directed the flights of poetry. Everybody missed some of the meaning of the words but they all could follow the plot. Despite the fact that all of them knew that in reality, the characters would not talk that way. This was nothing new, the listeners of Homer and Chaucer and the spectators at morality plays like Everyman knew the same thing.

  5. Of course he’s not saying Shakespeare is dumb, but he’s also not “just saying that we all know that his poetic dialogue is not meant to be realistic” — that is not a reasonable implication of “it is hardly likely that a vicious aristocrat would have expressed himself as beautifully as this.” If he’s assuming what “we all know,” why would that even need to be said? No, he’s presenting it as its own thing, something special that needs to be called to our attention in this particular case, and the implication is that there’s something odd about a vicious aristocrat expressing himself beautifully, since “we all know” vicious aristocrats don’t talk that way. I continue to find that baffling.

  6. Corky arms are red and gold. The colours of Cork are not brown and gray but rather red and white, popularly said to reflect the sandstone and limestone of many city edifices, in particular Shandon bell tower.


  7. The official colors of Cork may be red and white, but I regret to say your photo looks just as brown and gray as mine. Ireland is not a colorful place, begorra!

  8. There really should be a pub called the Corky Arms.

  9. cuchuflete says

    But its bark is the cork oak’s claim to fame. Almost ghostly pale in color, the bark is deeply furrowed and springy, and provides an ecologically sustainable cash crop.

    quercus suber


    “Almost ghostly pale…”. Not quite Shakespearian, but better than drab.

  10. On a crosscountry flight last week I was catching up on some back issues of the TLS and in the issue of February 4 there was an essay by Craig Raine (identified as an Emeritus Fellow in English at New College, Oxford) that began like this:

    ” ‘Bind fast his corky arms’ . One of Shakespeare’s most brilliant lines. One of Shakespeare’s most unlikely lines. Unlikely because, in reality, Cornwall would have said, ‘Bind fast his arms’. Corky. The brilliant, accurate, adjectival embellishment stretches our credulity – because Cornwall wouldn’t have time to come up with the comparison – except that it doesn’t. Shakespeare’s language is multi-tasking: “Bind fast his corky arms” is both an instruction and a description. The human mind processes the imperative’s double function instantaneously. There is no head-scratching, no puzzlement, no aporia. We know this is art serving life. And we do the calculus unhesitatingly.”

    This did not persuade me to read any further and I went on to the next issue, but now I’m wondering why, out of the entire Shakespearean corpus, it is Gloucester’s corky arms that inspired these meditations on the implausibility of poetic diction. Is there some famous discussion of this passage that both Raine and Wood are implicitly responding to?

  11. Good question! It’s even odder now that there are two of them working this implausible territory.

  12. OED reads corky as “Dry and stiff, withered, sapless.” It gives two examples: the one at hand, and “To teach an old corkie woman to writhe, tumble, curuet, and fetch her Morice gamboles,” from Samuel Harsnett’s A declaration of egregious popish impostures of 1603, five years earlier. Another early figurative use is in the sense of ‘lightweight’, as jests, brains, etc.

    I think they do much better than “white and crumbly.”

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    “Dry and stiff, withered, sapless.”

    That makes a lot of sense in context, too.

  14. From Jack Drum’s Entertainment, or, The Comedy of Pasquill and Katherine (1601), here:

    Oh the Prince of Fooles, vnequald Ideot,
    He that makes coſtly ſuppers to trie wits:
    And will not ſtick to ſpend ſome 20. pound
    To grope a gull: that ſame perpetuall grin
    That leades his Corkie Ieſts to make them ſinke
    Into the eares of his Deryders with his owne applauſe.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    lefts = jests
    I wanted to speculate about a possible meaning of “bloated or puffy” because some later usages apply to bruises. In this text, I find the use of the verb sinke is quite clever, because cork floats.

  16. And I’m guessing “leades” means ‘loads with lead’; like a fishing line, maybe?
    I don’t understand lines 2–4.

  17. David Marjanović says

    In any case, the German cognate is Lot, which has meanings that include “plumb bob” and “sounding lead” according to Wikipedia.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    trie wits = test cleverness in speech
    grope a gull = lend money to a gambler

  19. Thanks! And
    stick = hesitate

    (And £20 then is like £5000 today.)

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