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this makes Polonius’ line in Hamlet “There was ‘a gaming; there o’ertook in’s rouse; There falling out at tennis” very out of date, given the legend of Hamlet was first written down in 13th century, but I don’t think that really bothered Shakespeare overmuch given he also had cannon in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