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HOW WELL did the world’s greatest consulting detective know his Shakespeare? Based on Dr. John H. Watson’s initial assessments, not very much at all. On the other hand, Sherlockian scholars are uncovering Holmes quotes that suggest otherwise. Here, in two parts today and tomorrow, are tidbits revealed by some Internet sleuthing and examination of Watson’s chronicling Holmes’ adventures.

Watson’s First Impressions. Not long after establishing joint digs at 221 B Baker Street, Watson assessed the limits of his roommate. In particular, “1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.” Unless, of course, it’s “9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.”

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, English playwright, poet, and actor.

Given that William Shakespeare wrote almost 300 years before Holmes’ era, even the horrors perpetrated in Shakespearean tragedies (see, for example, Titus Andronicus) fall well outside Watson’s “in the century” limit.

Yet, as Watson’s further chronicling indicates, Holmes displayed familiarity with the Bard.

The Game is Afoot. For example, Holmes’ “The game is afoot” is a borrowing from Shakespeare, cited previously here at SimanaitisSays.

In Henry V, Act III, Scene 1, the evening before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry encourages his troops with, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more/…. The game’s afoot;/Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,/Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!”

Stirring stuff, this.

The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415. Illustration by Harry Payne.

In fact, Shakespeare liked the phrase enough to use it twice. In King Henry IV, Part 1, Act I Scene 3, Northumberland says to Hotspur, “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.”

Some 300 years later, in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” Watson writes, “It was on a bitterly cold and frosty morning during the winter of ’97 that I was awakened by a tugging of my shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face and told me at a glance that something was amiss.”

“ ‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot.’ ”

Holmes studies the victim in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.” Illustration by Sidney Paget.

Thrice is He armed… Holmes evidently knew his Shakespearean Henrys. In Henry VI, Part 2, Act III Scene 2, Shakespeare has the king say, “What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!/Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just.”

In “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” Holmes warns Watson about “a direct frontal attack,” albeit with a touch of 19th-century editing of the Bard’s words.

“Are you armed?”
“My stick!”
“Well, well, we shall be strong enough. ‘Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.’ ”

Illustration from The Arthur Conon Doyle Encyclopedia by Alec Ball in The Strand Magazine, December 1911.

A minor quibble about “that” versus “who,” but no matter. The world’s greatest consulting detective sure knew his Shakespeare. Additional evidence comes tomorrow in Part 2. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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