WOODCOCK

Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, Bécasse des bois.

10 occurrences (7 woodcock, 2 woodcocks, 1 cock's)



Woodcocks are an all-time favourite food as remains were found in Roman middens. But before being eaten they had to be caught using various traps of which Shakespeare gives the names, springe and gin: "Ay, springes to catch woodcocks." (HAM 1 3 115) and "Ay, ay, so strives the woodcock with the gin." (3H6 1 4 61). Of these C.T.ONIONS gives details in Shakespeare's England (1916, Vol. II, p. 370):

The springe probably consisted, like the modern substitute, of a pliant rod planted upright in the ground and having the top, to which a noose is attached, bent down and secured by a catch or trigger which is released by the action of the bird or animal. The rod flies up and the noose is drawn tight on the victim. It is uncertain whether the gin is the same contrivance as the springe, or, as some think, a steel trap very like a modern rat-trap.

In Shakespeare, these traps appear five times out of the ten occurrences of "woodcock", and become figurative. When, for example, in Twelfth Night Malvolio catches sight of Maria's concocted letter lying on the ground, Fabian exclaims: "Now is the woodcock near the gin." (2 5 84). Similarly, Laertes wounded with his own poisoned weapon laments that he is a "as a woodcock to [his] own springe"(HAM 5 2 312).

TILLEY gives three proverbs:

* "A springe to catch a woodcock" (S788)

* "As wise as a woodcock" (W746)

* "To play the woodcock" (W748)

This evolution towards the woodcock synonymous with fool as in the Taming of the Shrew: "O this woodcock, what an ass it is!" (1 2 159) is explained by the ease with which woodcocks were taken when using these methods since woodcocks always use the same paths or fly the same woodland rides.