meaning and origin of ‘to lead apes in hell’



The obsolete phrase to lead apes in hell expresses the fancied consequence of dying a spinster.

It is first recorded in A Hundreth sundrie Flowres bounde vp in one small Poesie (London, 1573), by the English poet George Gascoigne (circa 1539-1577); in A discourse of the aduentures passed by Master F. I., Lady Pergo says:

I am afraide my marriage wil be marred, and I may goe lead Apes in hell.

The English author John Lyly (circa 1554-1606) used the phrase in Euphues. The anatomy of wyt Very pleasant for all gentlemen to reade, and most necessary to remember: wherin are contained the delights that wyt followeth in his youth, by the pleasauntnesse of loue, and the happynesse he reapeth in age, by the perfectnesse of wisedome (London, 1578); for example, Ferardo gives this advice to his daughter, Lucilla:

I had rather thou shouldest leade a lyfe to thine owne lykeinge in earthe, then to thy greate tormentes leade Apes in Hell.

And Lucilla declares to Euphues:

I will eyther leade a Uirgins lyfe in earth (though I leade Apes in hell) or els follow thée rather then thy giftes.

The phrase also appeared in The London Prodigall (London, 1605), an anonymous comedy attributed to William Shakespeare on the title page:

– Lancelot. Nay be not angry syr, at her deniall,
Shee hath refus’de [sic] seauen of the worshipfulst and worthyest hous-keepers this day in Kent:
Indeed she will not marry I suppose.
– Maister Weathercocks. The more foole she.
– Lancelot. What is it folly to loue Charitie?
– Maister Weathercocks. No mistake me not syr Lancelot,
But tis an old prouerbe, and you know it well,
That women dying maides, lead apes in hell.
– Lancelot. Thats a foolish prouerbe, and a false.

The real English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the phrase on two occasions. In The Taming of the Shrew (around 1591), Katherina reproaches her father for favouring her sister’s marriage before her own:

(Folio 1, 1623)
What will you not suffer me: Nay now I see
She is your treasure, she must haue a husband,
I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day,
And for your loue to her, leade Apes in hell.
Talke not to me, I will go sit and weepe,
Till I can finde occasion of reuenge.

And in Much adoe about Nothing (circa 1599), Beatrice declares to her uncle, Leonato, that she will never get married:

(Quarto 1, 1600)
– Beatrice. I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face, I
had rather lie in the woollen!
– Leonato. You may light on a husband that hath no beard.
– Beatrice. What should I do with him, dresse him in my ap-
parell and make him my waiting gentlewoman? he that hath a
beard, is more then a youth: and he that hath no beard, is lesse
then a man: and he that is more then a youth, is not for me, and
he that is lesse then a man, I am not for him, therefore I will
euen take sixpence in earnest of the Berrord*, and leade his
apes into hell.
– Leonato. Well then, go you into hell.
– Beatrice. No but to the gate, and there will the diuell meete
me like an old cuckold with hornes on his head, and say, get
you to heauen Beatrice, get you to heauen, heeres no place for
you maids, so deliuer I vp my apes and away to saint Peter: for
the heauens, he shewes me where the Batchellers sit, and there
liue we as mery as the day is long.

* The use of the word Berrord, that is, bear-herd, which denotes the keeper of a bear, who leads it about for exhibition, might be an indication that bears and perhaps other animals were involved in the metaphor—unless Shakespeare simply developed the existing phrase.

On 1st January 1754, Harrop’s Manchester Mercury. And General Advertiser (Manchester, Lancashire) published a curious petition, of which I have transcribed the beginning and the conclusion:

                                                                 To his G—— the A—b— of C——.
The humble Remonstrance and Petition of Mary Mouthwater, Elizabeth Longfor’t, Catherine Coleblack, Bridget Bitesheets, and Sukey Scratchit, of the County of Kent, Spinsters, in Behalf of themselves and many thousand other distressed Damsels of the said County, grievously complaining,
That your G——’ Petitioners have been all carefully bred up, and instructed by their Parents in the Christian Religion.
That your Petitioners are now arrived at the proper Age of answering the Ends of their Creation, by fulfilling the first Commandment; and that your Petitioners are also very desirous of doing it.
That your Petitioners can with Truth and Sorrow of Heart say, that they find the Men not so ready to obey the first, and as your Petitioners conceive, the principal Commandment, as Themselves.
That your Petitioners, being at Church last Sunday, were struck with Grief and Astonishment on hearing the Doctor read a Paper, called, An Act to prevent clandestine Marriages, which your Petitioners apprehend will make the Men still more averse to Matrimony, and consequently rob them of all their Hopes, and render their Cases quite desperate.
That we your Petitioners, not understanding the Meaning of the Word, Clandestine, did apply to our Reverend Father, (who is a good Man, and always ready to stand our Friend, as far as he is able) who told us, that the Meaning was, We must not marry such Men as we ourselves lik’d, except our Parents also approv’d of them.
That your Petitioners, not at all pleased with this Explanation, did turn to the Marriage Ceremony in our Prayer-Books, where we did not find that Matrimony was instituted for the Pleasure of our Parents, but that it was ordained for the Procreation of Children, and for a Remedy against Fornication.
That your Petitioners do humbly conceive these Ends will not be answered by this Act; for as St. Paul says, It is better to marry, than to burn; so if we burn for one, and are compell’d to marry another, how will our Flame be quenched? Nor will it, we apprehend, answer the Purpose of Procreation, near so well, as if we married the Men we like; though, perhaps, it may tend to hinder Fornication, by substituting in its room Adultery.
Your Petitioners, tho’ they have been inform’d that this Act is the Child of a Gentleman of great Parts, (and great Parts are very alluring) yet cannot but believe it to be a Bastard; because it seems much better calculated for the Encouragement of common Prostitutes, than to make your honest, but poor Petitioners happy Mothers of lawful Children.
Your Petitioners, therefore, most humbly pray your G——, to take their unfortunate Cases into Consideration, and to intercede for them, that they may not mourn for their Virginities all their Lives, and then be compelled to lead Apes in Hell.
                                                                                                                                                     And your Petitioners shall, &c.

to lead apes in hell - Harrop_s Manchester Mercury - 1 January 1754

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.