a Shakespearean phrase: ‘this mortal coil’

Miss Janette SteerMadame Bandmann-PalmerMiss Marriott
Some woman-Hamlets – from The Sketch (London) – 31st May 1899

 

 

 

MEANING

 

(literary or humorous)—this mortal coil: the troubles and activities of this mortal life

 

ORIGIN

 

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) thus defined the noun coil:

Tumult; turmoil; bustle; stir; hurry; confusion.

This noun—obsolete, except in this mortal coil—is first attested in Horace his arte of poetrie, pistles, and satyrs Englished (1567), by Thomas Drant (circa 1540-1578), poet and Church of England clergyman:

O Ianus, helpe thou on my verse, thou knowes the cruell coyle
In Citie kepte, as éeke [= also] the ease of quiet countrie soyle.

Thomas Drant also wrote:

Againe, thinckes thou that I at Rome my vearses can indyte
Mongst so much toyle, and such a coyle, suche soking carke*, and spyte.

(* Here, the noun cark, related to charge, means that which burdens the spirit.)

The noun coil is probably from Old and Middle French acueil (Modern French accueil), meaning receptionencounter. Nearly all the earliest English attestations are such a coil and what a coil, although this is not necessary in accounting for the loss of the initial a-, which also occurred in the obsolete English noun cater (the origin and synonym of caterer), from Middle English catour, aphetic form of acatour.

The French noun is from the verb acueillir (Modern French accueillir), which had varied and numerous meanings, such as to gatherto receive and to pursue. It is based on Latin colligereto gather together, which is the origin of the English verb to coil.

In The faerie queene (1590), the English poet Edmund Spenser (circa 1552-1599) used to accoil, derived from the French verb, to mean to crowd, throng:

About the caudron many Cookes accoyld
With hookes and ladles, as need did requyre;
The whyles the viaundes in the vessell boyld,
They did about their businesse sweat, and sorely toyld.

The English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) coined this mortal coil in The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (between 1599 and 1602); Prince Hamlet contemplates death and suicide:

(Quarto 2, 1604)
To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether tis nobler in the minde to suffer
The slings and arrowes of outragious fortune,
Or to take Armes against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them, to die to sleepe
No more, and by a sleepe, to say we end
The hart-ake, and the thousand naturall shocks
That flesh is heire to; tis a consumation
Deuoutly to be wisht to die to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to dreame, I there’s the rub,
For in that sleepe of death what dreames may come
When we haue shuffled off this mortall coyle
Must giue vs pause.

John Dalton (1709-63), English cleric and poet, used the Shakespearean image in Comus, a Mask: (Now adapted to the Stage) As Alter’d from Milton’s Mask (1738):

– First Attendant Spirit:
Declare, on what strange Errand bent,
Thou visitest this Clime, to me assign’d,
So far remote from thy appointed Sphere?
– Second Attendant Spirit:
On no appointed Task thou see’st me now:
But as returning from Elysian Bowers
(Whither from mortal Coil a Soul I wasted).

The English author William Whitehead (1715-85), who became Poet Laureate in 1757, used the image in the pompous Ode for his Majesty’s Birth-Day, June 4, 1761, performed at the Court and published in The Ipswich Journal of 6th June; the following is from the antistrophe:

O sacred Truth in Emblem dress’t!—
Again the Muses sing,
Again in Britain’s blooming King
Alcides stands confess’d [= Heracles is revealed];
By Temperance nurs’d, and early taught
To shun the smooth fallacious Draught
Which sparkles high in Circe’s Bowl:
To tame each Hydra of the Soul,
Each lurking Pest, which mocks its Birth,
And ties the Spirit down to Earth
Immers’d in mortal Coil:
His Choice was that severer Road
Which leads to Virtue’s calm Abode,
And well repays the Toil.

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