meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to come to Hecuba’

MEANING

 

The phrase to come to Hecuba, also to cut to Hecuba, means to come to the point—synonym: to cut to the chase.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from a letter written from Paris, France, by the U.S. Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872)—letter published in The Mississippian (Jackson, Mississippi) of Friday 20th March 1835:

But stay, I might fill a volume in praise and condemnation of all the good and evil things one may find in Paris, and will therefore come to Hecuba. Paris is certainly a paradise of pleasure. [&c.]

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Drogheda Journal; or, Meath and Louth Advertiser (Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland) of Tuesday 18th October 1836—Benjamin Bloomfield (1768-1846), 1st Baron Bloomfield, was a British Army officer who served as Private Secretary to the Sovereign from 1817 to 1822:

Bloomfield’s influence at the period alluded to was, we have said, on the decline—he had been the confidant of one favorite Marchioness, and he was regarded with the greatest suspicion by her successor. To add to his difficulties, he had fallen into disgrace with the then Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, owing to the withholding a letter of remonstrance from that Noble Lord to the Prince Regent relating to a charge made upon the Treasury for jewels presented to the Marchioness of C——, by direction of his Royal Highness, which Lord Liverpool submitted he could not undertake to pay for. To increase his embarrassment, came the Royal visit to Ireland, where the Secretary’s expences exceeded those of his Royal master; and to complete the affair, an enquiry was made into the expenditure at the stud-house, which had been almost rebuilt, under Bloomfield’s directions, at the cost of the nation. “To come at once to Hecuba,” the Marchioness and her friends succeeded in removing him; but it was considered politic to do so with great caution—he was therefore created a Peer, pensioned, and employed in a diplomatic character at Stockholm.

 

THEATRICAL ORIGIN

 

Michael Warwick gave the following explanations in Theatrical jargon of the old days, published in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 3rd October 1968:

Cut to Hecuba (or “Come to Hecuba”)” is another relic from Shakespeare, and was an artifice employed by many old producers to shorten matinées by cutting out long speeches.

The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) does make the title role use come to Hecuba in Act II, scene 2, of The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623).

A troupe of players (i.e., of actors) have arrived at Elsinore. Hamlet welcomes those old and valued acquaintances, and asks the “First Player” (i.e., the chief among those actors) for “a passionate speech”, one that Hamlet was particularly impressed by when he first heard it, “Aeneas Tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of Priams slaughter”:

Enter foure or fiue Players.
– Hamlet: Y’are welcome Masters, welcome all. I am glad to see
thee well: Welcome good Friends. […]
                                                                            wee’l
haue a Speech straight. Come giue vs a tast of your qua-
lity: come, a passionate speech.
– 1st Player: What speech, my Lord?
– Hamlet: I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was
neuer Acted: or if it was, not aboue once, for the Play I
remember pleas’d not the Million, ’twas Cauiarie to the
Generall […].
                                                                           One
cheefe Speech in it, I cheefely lou’d, ’twas Aeneas Tale
to Dido, and thereabout of it especially, where he speaks
of Priams slaughter.

The First Player, therefore, tells how Pyrrhus avenged on Priam’s head the death of his father, Achilles, killed in battle by Priam’s son, Paris.

But Hamlet urges the actor to include in the action a third figure, Priam’s wife, Hecuba:

– Polonius: This is too long.
– Hamlet: It shall to’th Barbars [= barber’s], with your beard. Pry-
thee say on: He’s for a Iigge [= jig], or a tale of Baudry, or hee
sleepes. Say on; come to Hecuba.

Therefore, the First Player says of Hecuba:

When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his Sword her Husbands limbes,
The instant Burst of Clamour that she made
(Vnlesse things mortall moue them not at all)
Would haue made milche the Burning eyes of Heauen,
And passion in the Gods.

Of course, Hamlet’s intention is to draw analogies between:
1: himself, and Pyrrhus, the son-avenger;
2: Claudius, King Hamlet’s murderer, and Priam, the object of the son-avenger’s retaliatory anger;
3: Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow, who has married Claudius, and Hecuba, Priam’s wife.

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGY

 

It is often—but erroneously—said that the phrase to come, or to cut, to Hecuba refers to the following passage from Hamlet’s monologue at the end of Act II, scene 2, which takes place after all the other characters have left the stage:

Is it not monstrous that this Player heere,
But in a Fixion, in a dreame of Passion,
Could force his soule so to his whole conceit,
That from her working, all his visage warm’d;
Teares in his eyes, distraction in’s Aspect,
A broken voyce, and his whole Function suiting
With Formes, to his Conceit? And all for nothing?
For Hecuba?
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weepe for her? What would he doe,
Had he the Motiue and the Cue for passion
That I haue?

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