Six geese a-laying


On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Six geese a-laying,

Five gold rings,

Four calling birds, three French hens,

Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Cavendish 009.jpg

Ah geese. A most seasonal bird, first domesticated around four thousand years ago and the Christmas roast of choice for many (although turkey has a longer history than you might think – apparently Henry VIII was the first British monarch to have turkey for Christmas).*

This long history means that geese were a common object for Shakespeare and his audience – known for being loud…

  • Goose, an I had you upon Sarum Plain, I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot. (King Lear)
  • I think the nightingale, if she should sing by day, When every goose is cackling, would be thought No better a musician than the wren. (The Merchant of Venice)

and a little bit dim…

  • ye giddy goose (Henry IV part 1)
  • LYSANDER: This lion is a very fox for his valour. THESEUS: True; and a goose for his discretion. DEMETRIUS: Not so, my lord; for his valour cannot carry his discretion, and the fox carries the goose. THESEUS: His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valour; for the goose carries not the fox.     (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

They are also pretty good eating (if you like game birds) and usually nicely fatty**

  •  Come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose. (Macbeth)
  •  This is the liver-vein, which makes flesh a deity, A green goose a goddess- pure, pure idolatry. (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  •  Mercutio: Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most sharp sauce.   Romeo: And is it not, then, well serv’d in to a sweet goose? (Romeo and Juliet)

And goose quills were also used for writing…

  • many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills (Hamlet)
  • Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen, no matter. About it. (Twelfth Night)

There’s also – ahem – one rather more unusual goose-based euphemism. The Globe and Rose theatres were in an area which was of Winchester – the so-called Liberty of the Clink. As well as being good for theatre, and for bear-baiting, it was also a centre for prostitution, and the women were known as “Winchester geese”. Apparently goose-bumps was a euphemism for sexually transmitted diseases! Shakespeare has a couple of sly allusions to these ladies –in Henry VI part 1 Winchester and Gloucester are having an argument:

WINCHESTER. Gloucester, thou wilt answer this before the Pope.

GLOUCESTER. Winchester goose! I cry ‘A rope, a rope!’

Now beat them hence; why do you let them stay

In Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus says

Some two months hence my will shall here be made.

It should be now, but that my fear is this,

Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.

Not only a double-meaning, but one distinctly out of time for a Trojan…


* As a nod to the “a-laying” part, goose eggs are apparently very rich, good with asparagus soldiers, and the size of two hen’s eggs.

** Another culinary suggestion – goose fat makes the best roast potatoes…


9 thoughts on “Six geese a-laying

  1. Another great post. And more sly rudeness that might be missed by a modern audience. I had heard of Winchester Geese – interesting that the ‘geese’ were allowed to stay within the bishops territory. He took taxes from them, apparently – I wonder if he visited them too?


      • Imagine a modern man of the cloth taking money from protitutes. These days we call that ‘living off immoral earnings’ and he’d be sent to jail as soon as look at him. I wonder how many priests were actually celibate at that time. It wasn’t so long since Pope Alexander VI – and he had girlfriends and children!


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