The faith they have in tennis


Wimbledon started today. Come on Tim!*

The tennis of Shakespeare’s time was an altogether different beast to lawn tennis. Played indoors in courts where pitched roofs are an integral part of the playing field, it is an incredibly fast game with the most complicated set of rules, which is why it is rarely filmed, and probably why lawn tennis is more popular in general.

The game was first popular in England** in around the time of Henry V, so the famous scene with the ambassador in that play is actually not as anachronistic as it might seem:

AMBASSADOR: He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,

This tun of treasure; and, in lieu of this,

Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim

Hear no more of you. This the Dauphin speaks.

KING HENRY. What treasure, uncle?

EXETER. Tennis-balls, my liege.

KING HENRY. We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;

His present and your pains we thank you for.

When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,

We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set

Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.

Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler

That all the courts of France will be disturb’d

With chaces.

Hazard and chace (or chase) are both terms which occur in tennis – the hazard is the receiving (rather than serving) end of the court, and a chase is when the ball bounces twice – it doesn’t signify losing a point as it does in lawn tennis but instead requires a replay later in the match when the object is to make the ball bounce nearer the net than it did in the chase.***

Photo by Nigel Mykura, shared under Creative Commons License

It was Henry VIII who made the game really popular (and built a tennis court at Hampton Court Palace, where you can watch matches if you want) and by the reign of James I there were apparently 14 courts in London alone – and much of a Shakespearean audience could be assumed to be familiar enough with the game to laugh when Claudio teases Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing “No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him, and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuff’d tennis balls.”

Of course this makes Polonius’ line in Hamlet “There was ‘a gaming; there o’ertook in’s rouse; There falling out at tennis” very out of date, given the legend of Hamlet was first written down in 13th century, but I don’t think that really bothered Shakespeare overmuch given he also had cannon in King John.

So there you have it – Shakespearean tennis. As complicated as A Comedy Of Errors, as full of action as a Henry V, and these day as popular as Cymbeline…

* It’s entirely possible that my formative Wimbledon experiences were the late 90s and some things are hard to snap out of.

** It was also popular in Scotland – the oldest surviving Real Tennis court is in Falkland Castle, home to the Marquis of Bute and was built in 1539.

*** Yes, my brain hurts too.

11 thoughts on “The faith they have in tennis

  1. I remember seeing the court at Hampton Court- it always looks like a very complicated, tough game. Was it tennis Henry was supposed to be playing when he heard Anne Boleyn had been executed? Can’t quite remember. Yes, Wimbledon would be a different tournament if it was real tennis.


    • Yes, and legend has it that Anne was arrested while watching a match, and carried off complaining about not being able to collect her winnings. You can’t deny she had her own style!
      I suspect that if Wimbledon was real tennis, they would have simplified the game, made it easier for large groups of spectators to watch, and altered the court so it was easier to have many set up in the same place. And possibly made it much more like lawn tennis!

      Liked by 1 person

      • She certainly had some guts, much good it did her. But Henry’s behaviour bordered on the psychopathic – the way he could cut himself off emotionally from Anne after loving her so passionately and just move smoothly onto Jane Seymour without a blink – disturbed behaviour.
        Did you see Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies? I thought it was magnificient. And I’d love to see Mark Rylance again – in anything 🙂
        I’m not sure real tennis would thrive today as a spectator sport – it’s much too complicated and dangerous for the viewers as the competitors used the walls. But as it’s basically indoors, at least it would never be rained off 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Goodness yes, I don’t think anyone nowadays would regard Henry as mentally stable!
        I loved Wolf Hall. I was lucky enough to see Mark Rylance as Richard III in 2012 – he was just astonishing but so absolutely creepy you couldn’t warm to him. So it was great to see him bring his talent to bear on a more (just, depending on your viewpoint) sympathetic protagonist.
        You’re right about the rain – despite today’s weather it’s a valid point in Britain!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mark Rylance is supposed to be one of the country’s finest stage actors, so I can imagine he was wonderful. Just a shame the adaptation of the third book will be such a long way off – if it ever happens. He really did make us understand Cromwell’s motivations, as did Mantell’s books, of course. The court was a ruthless place to be and a man had to look out for himself. Strange how so many were lured by it, despite the odds of you falling heavily from favour in the end


  2. westville13

    It has been suggested (sorry no reference – I read it a long time ago) that France was known for it’s manufacture of Real (or Royal) Tennis balls and that therefore no insult was intended and Henry was looking for a casus belli.


    • Interesting. Are the tennis balls an actual historical fact then? I assumed it was Shakespeare looking for a good insult that would allow some punning, so I haven’t checked other (quasi-) historical accounts…


      • westville13

        Don’t know – but a Shakespearian audience would I think have known of France’s manufacturing reputation in this area,


  3. Grenovicus

    And do you know about the tennis ball found in Westminster Hall’s roof (during restoration)? Can never see the Hall without thinking about the odd tennis match. But don’t know if the ball was French.

    Liked by 1 person

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