6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

iofoto/iStock via Getty Images
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare was known for writing with a fabulous disregard for the rules of language. Not only did he regularly coin his own phrases, he also literally made up words—many of which are now in our discourse and dictionaries. And, considering how influential his work has been for the last five centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scholar who thinks that the prolific playwright’s penchant for literary invention was anything but genius.

Having said that, the Bard did actually get a few things wrong. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays include historical figures like Julius Caesar and events like the Trojan War, we know they were set during pretty specific time periods. And while Shakespeare is certainly allowed to mention Niccolò Machiavelli in a play that takes place before Machiavelli was even born, it’s not exactly historically accurate.

What we don’t know for sure are the reasons behind the Bard’s occasional anachronisms. Did he include them intentionally to provide context and clarity for his audience? Or were they legitimate mistakes, because fact-checking was a lot more labor-intensive in the pre-internet era?

Since we’re now just a Google search away from knowing Machiavelli’s birth year and more, here are the details behind six of Shakespeare’s most surprising anachronisms.

1. The clock in Julius Caesar

In Act 2, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, after the stage directions say “Clock strikes,” Brutus tells Cassius to “count the clock,” and Cassius says it “hath stricken three.” Though humans have been measuring time for thousands of years, clocks definitely didn’t "strike" while Caesar was alive. The first weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England in 1283, more than 1300 years after Caesar’s death. Before that, people used sundials or devices called clepsydras, which counted time by measuring water that slowly dripped in or out of a container. Given the late hour, a sundial wouldn’t have sufficed for this scene, and maybe Shakespeare felt that “Check how much water is in the bowl!” would bewilder his modern audience.

2. The doublet in Julius Caesar

A doublet, circa 1580. Catherine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The clock might be Shakespeare’s most famous anachronism in Julius Caesar, but it’s not the only one. Earlier in the play (Act 1, Scene 2), Casca recounts to Cassius and Brutus how, after refusing the crown three times, Caesar pulls aside his clothing to offer the crowd his throat to cut. The clothing, however, isn’t the Roman military finery you’re probably imagining. Casca calls it a doublet, which is a type of fancy jacket popular between the 15th and 17th centuries—Shakespeare himself is sometimes pictured wearing one. Caesar may have been ahead of his time in some ways, but he certainly wasn’t fashion-forward enough to have predicted a trend that occurred more than 1500 years after he died in 44 BCE.

3. The billiards game in Antony and Cleopatra

In Act 2, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her servant Charmain to play billiards. Considering that Cleopatra was born around 69 BCE in Egypt, and the earliest known mention of billiards wasn’t until 15th-century Europe, an apt response from Charmain would’ve been “Madam, what are billiards?” Instead, she declines the game due to a sore arm, and a mercurial Cleopatra declares that she’s lost interest and would rather go fishing (which, of course, has been around for much longer than billiards).

4. The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry VI

dcerbino/iStock via Getty Images

Niccolò Machiavelli made such an impact on society with his treatise The Prince that Shakespeare mentioned him in Henry VI not once, but twice—both with negative connotations. In Act 5, Scene 4 of Part 1, Joan of Arc tells Warwick and York that she’s pregnant with Alençon’s child to convince them not to burn her at the stake. At this, York exclaims “Alençon! That notorious Machiavel!” meaning that Alençon is essentially an immoral person. As you might remember from a high school history class, Joan of Arc eventually did end up burning at the stake in 1431.

Shakespeare’s next reference to Machiavelli occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 of Part 3, right after Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Richard, whose brother Edward currently sits on the throne, delivers a lengthy monologue in which he vows to commit whatever heinous crimes are necessary to steal the crown for himself, “[setting] the murderous Machiavel to school.” In other words, he plans to take Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” mantra to such a high level that he’ll basically be showing its founder how it’s done. However, in 1465, Machiavelli was definitely not yet “murderous.” In fact, he wasn’t even born until four years later (and decades after Joan of Arc's death), in 1469.

5. The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare spins a tale of love and loss during the Trojan War, which is thought to have occurred in either the 12th or 13th century BCE. Aristotle, on the other hand, was definitely born in 384 BCE. So when Hector likens Paris and Troilus to the young men “whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy” in Act 2, Scene 2, he showed wisdom beyond his years … by several hundred years.

6. The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Edwin Henry Landseer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

What we now call gunpowder exploded onto the scene in China as early as 850 CE, and guns themselves were developed over the following centuries. Ancient as that may seem, it’s not nearly as old as ancient Greece, the setting for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 3, Scene 2, the jester Puck tells the fairy king Oberon how, when Nick Bottom’s friends see him with a donkey’s head, they act like wild geese “rising and cawing at the gun’s report.” In other words, they scatter in fear, much like geese do when a hunter fires his gun. Having said that, it’s hard to begrudge Shakespeare one measly anachronism in a play with fairies, love potions, and roguish sprites who can transform humans into donkeys.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.