Sixpence in earnest of the bearward

Beatrice, from Much Ado About Nothing (2.1.~30-35):

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath
no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than
a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man,
I am not for him: therefore, I will even take sixpence in
earnest of the bearward, and lead his apes into hell.

‘Bearward’ – and its variants ‘berrord’ in the Quarto text and ‘bearherd’ in Folio 3 – are the sorts of dead words I enjoy looking into. Here the OED gives a surprising multiplicity of forms:

α. Middle English barrewarde, Middle English berewarde, Middle English–1500s barwarde, Middle English–1500s bereward, Middle English–1500s berward, Middle English–1500s berwarde, 1500s bearwarde, 1500s–1600s beareward, 1600s– bearward.

β. 1500s–1600s bearard, 1600s bearerd, 1600s berard, 1600s berod, 1600s berrord, 1800s berrod (English regional).

and takes Folio 3’s ‘bearherd’ as a later synonym with a different second root element (out of curiosity I checked ‘shepherd’ and found that it had the same change in reverse in the early 17th century – breaking off into a soon-defunct ‘sheepward’).

The definition of bearward is given as:

In Britain: a person who takes care of bears, bulls, apes, or other animals, training and managing them for displays of public entertainment, such as baiting and dancing. Now historical.

The expansion to animals beyond bears feels a bit odd at first and might seem a Shakespearean innovation if there weren’t an example from 1551 ( in John Bale’s The first two parts of the Actes, or vnchast examples of the Englysh votaryes) that confirms the earlier broader application:

They played with those worldly rulers..as the bearwardes ded with their apes and their beares.

But even with its wider scope, ‘bearward’ didn’t displace more the particular terms. For apes alone I quickly found ‘ape-bearer’, ‘ape-keeper’, ‘ape-leader’, and (predictably) ‘ape-ward’. The first of these is used by Shakespeare twenty years later in A Winters Tale (4.3.94 – “I know this man well, he hath bene since an Ape-bearer.”) and, except for ‘ape-ward’ (with a single citation from Piers Plowman in 1362), the rest show continued life into the 17th century.

So why bearward here instead of an ape-word? Because it – along with variants ‘berrord’ and ‘bearherd’ – would have been a near homophone for ‘beard’ that Beatrice uses twice at the start of the quoted lines and the bard can’t turn down a sound similarity, especially when it so deftly smooths the transition to a proverb that I’ll make a post about shortly.

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