A literary - and highly improbable - cricket match
The recent annual cricket match between the Shakespeareans and the Chaucereans was not without its usual features of interest and controversy. Lessons were, however, learned from last year’s encounter, in that the disastrous decision to invite Hamlet to stand as umpire was not repeated. His complete indecision when asked to judge on just about anything had led to the match being slowed to a crawl and half the players falling asleep as he pondered on: “Is he out or is he not out, that is the question”, time after time.
This year’s umpires, Chaucer’s Man of Law and Shakespeare’s Portia, fulfilled their roles admirably, although too many batsmen seemed to think that appealing to the latter to be merciful was going to save their bacon. Reminders to her that mercy, according to her own words, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath” only led to their wickets doing the dropping.
The aforementioned Hamlet was supposed to open the batting for the Shakespeareans, but his partner, King Lear, found himself alone at the crease while Hamlet stayed behind in the Pavilion mulling over the wisdom of whether to take part. He was heard muttering: “To bat or not to bat” before delivering a soliloquy to nobody in particular. The Man of Law knew the laws of cricket inside out and invoked the little-used three-minute rule to declare that Hamlet had forfeited his wicket by not turning up.
Apart from the Prince of Denmark, players on both sides managed to find some unusual ways of getting out. The Chaucereans made the mistake of putting the Wife of Bath, who was never the most athletic of cricketers, on to bowl, and her first effort was so slow that the ball failed to reach the batsman, who was Macbeth. Just like Hamlet he felt a soliloquy coming on and strode out to meet the red object with the words: “Is this a cricket ball which I see before me, the seam toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.” Unfortunately he did precisely that and was adjudged out “handled the ball”.
Richard III’s innings was short and his defeat was perhaps inevitable. Having been pummelled by lots of short-pitched bowling from unscrupulous Chaucereans such as the Monk and the Friar he decided that his only way of scoring any runs would be by preventing the fielders from getting close to the ball should he ever manage to hit it. When this happened at long last he called out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” and three nags from a neighbouring field responded to his appeal by leaping on to the pitch and generally getting in the way. Portia and the Man of Law had a long debate over whether this constituted “obstructing the field”. They finally decided that it did and sent Richard on his way back to the Pavilion.
Chaucer’s Knight started his innings well enough, putting up a stout defence to anything that the Shakespearean bowlers could hurl at him. However, when he played a shot that sent the ball towards the covers he got a sudden rush of blood to the head and charged off after it. On reaching the ball he gave it another whack that sent it over the boundary but all to no avail. He was dismissed by Portia for “hitting the ball twice”.
The match might have reached a conclusion had it not been abandoned due to the riot that broke out in the beer tent. Tensions had been growing all day due to the disagreement between Harry Bailey, mine host of the Tabard Inn, Southwark, and Mistress Quickly of the Boar’s Head Tavern. The task of running the beer tent – and collecting the substantial profits - had traditionally been alternated between the two with Harry having the job in odd years and Mistress Quickly running the show in even years. However, Harry had been away on yet another pilgrimage last year so Mistress Quickly had filled the breach. Harry now expected to take his turn, but this was – as Mistress Quickly pointed out – an even year and therefore she had the right to do the job.
An uneasy truce was agreed whereby both innkeepers operated inside the tent, each selling their own beer. However, this led to considerable competition with each claiming that their beer was better than the opposition’s. Mistress Quickly was particularly incensed when Sir John Falstaff bought beer from Harry Bailey rather than her. Sir John pointed out that he was only sampling the other side’s product so that he could make a fair comparison, but her ladyship regarded this as a form of treachery.
As it happened, most of the beer tent customers followed Sir John’s example, this including a steady stream of dismissed batsmen who sought to drown their sorrows as a way of getting over what they saw as grave injustices. Because the beer on offer at the two stalls was actually exactly the same stuff – due to a crafty supply deal organised by the Pardoner – the customers had to keep buying more from each bar before they could make up their minds which was better. The net result was that far more beer was drunk than was good for anyone – apart, that is, from the two sellers.
Hence the riot. However, as fists flew and chairs were hurled across the tent and cricket field, all the participants took the view that getting out on the field was nothing like as satisfying as getting out of one’s head in the beer tent afterwards.
And next year? Probably a repeat performance.