From the smoke into the smother

From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1.2.276), Orlando speaking.

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

I had this phrase marked from a past reading as something to look into, expecting to find several parallels elsewhere. It turns out there are none (at least none easily found). It also turns out that its interpretation feels shakier than most commentaries suggest in equating it to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The short version of everything below – and it is far more than I wished when I started writing – is that the surrounding context, line structure, and wording do allow the sense of ‘out of the frying-pan…’ but don’t require it. They also allow a second interpretation that is closer to ‘from one trouble to another [equivalent trouble].’ I tend to prefer this second reading.

The commentaries that make the phrase equivalent to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ point for support to Dent’s Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language, the standard reference for exactly what the title suggests. Dent, however, is himself a middleman here and simply lists the proverb in connection to entry S570 from Wilson’s The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (pg. 574):

Smoke, shunning the | they fall into the fire. Cf. Frying pan.

[Erasm. Adag. 184c: Fumum fugiens, in ignem incidi].

c. 1530 Lucian Necromantia – As the comen proverb is of every man Out of the smoke into the fyre I ran

1535 T. Lupset Exhort Young Men ed. Gee 256 – What faute so ever you may do, let it not be defended with a flase tale: for that were to fle out of the smoke in to the fire.

1549. H. Bullinger Treatise or Sermon B4 – Magistrates had nede of much … fear of god, in takyng vp or in laying downe their warres, les perchaunse in flying the smoke thei fall into the fyre

1576 Pettie ii. 89 – Thinking to quench the coals of his desire, he fell into hot flames of burning fire.

1599 Shakes. A.Y. I.ii.266 – Thus must I from the smoke into the smother.

1666 Torriano It. Prov. 96 no. 22 – Many an one flies the smoke, who afterward falls into the fire.

The structure of the proverb in all given examples is ‘purposefully attempting to evade threat A, a person falls into greater threat B’. So Erasmus’ original ‘fleeing the smoke, I fall into the fire’. So also all senses of the related ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The current version of that proverb has lost any verb of motion but the two earliest examples from the entry in Wilson’s English Proverbs (pg 292) show that it was originally there – 1530 Barclay Eclog. – ‘out of the water thou leapest into the fyre’ and 1528 More – ‘Lepe they lyke a flounder out of a frying-panne into the fyre’. See also the decent entry for the proverb’s history on wikipedia.

This structure can be mapped onto Shakespeare’s line if you assume a condensed phrasing where ‘Thus must I from the smoke into the smother‘ is in conception something closer to ‘Thus must I [in attempting to flee from] the smoke [fall] into the smother.’ The smoke here would be Duke Frederick – La Beau has just warned Orlando at 1.2.250-256 to ‘leave this place‘ because the Duke ‘misconstrues all that you have done.’ And the smother would be Orlando’s brother Oliver – whom we’ve already learned (1.1) has mistreated Orlando throughout his life and, as we soon will learn (2.3), intends to get rid of him by (almost too appropriately) burning him alive. Orlando is then using this scene-end couplet to announce his sense that in turning from the Duke he only returns to a more threatening situation with his brother.

There are issues with this reading though. First is that Orlando at the moment of speaking has no knowledge of his brother’s plot against him. Rather, his sense of his standing with his brother must match Oliver’s concluding remarks from their earlier encounter (1.1.72-74) – ‘Well, sir, get you in. I will not long be troubled with you; you shall have some part of your will. I pray you leave me.‘ ‘Will’ here is a pun that captures both ‘your wish’ and ‘your inheritance.’ It can be given a sinister turn by the audience but it’s clear from Orlando’s response (75-76) – ‘I will no further offend you than becomes me for my good‘ – that he doesn’t himself take it that way. Accordingly, it’s not obvious to me that he’d be conceiving of the turn from Frederick to Oliver as a movement from a bad situation to a worse.

A second issue is with smother. This is Shakespeare’s only use of the noun – though he uses the verb nine times elsewhere – so we have to rely for meaning on the OED. It gives smother as ‘Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.).’ I’m not convinced that either this definition or the usage examples on which it is based (provided in full below) justify treating smoke … smother as parallel to smoke … fire in the sense of the latter element representing an increased danger. Instead – and especially given the OED’s note of smother’s frequent coupling with smoke – they seem to point more to treating smoke … smother as functional synonyms.

In this reading Orlando is saying no more than ‘I am now moving from one threatening situation to another.’ You don’t have to supply a sense of ‘trying to avoid bad Frederick, I fall into the worse Oliver’ and you don’t have to understand ‘smother‘ as heightened in danger over smoke. You can instead treat the choice of smoke…smother as dictated by two complementary desires – the wish for parallel internal sound repetitions each line of a rhyming couplet (italics below) and the need for line-end rhymes in that couple (bold below):

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

This blew right through the work day.

Below is the OED definition of smother and list of uses.

a. Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.)
c1175 Lamb. Hom. 43 Þet þridde [was] fur,..þe siste smorðer.
?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. (1972) 199 Þe deofles chef. þet nis nocht bute to helle smorðere.
1393 W. Langland Piers Plowman C. xx. 303 When smoke and smorþre smyt in hus eyen.
c1540 (▸?a1400) Destr. Troy 11796 Hit fest was on fyre, & flappit out onone, Vnto smorther & smoke.
β., γ.
a1300 Body & Soul in Map’s Poems (Camden) 339 Þe erþe it openede anon, smoke and smoþer op it wal.
a1400 Adultery 87 in Herrig Archiv LXXIX. 420 Smoþer & smoke þer come owte wylde.
a1400 Stockh. Medical MS. ii. 598 in Anglia XVIII. 322 Ȝif vnder nethyn þer hennys sate Of hennebane a smoþer thou make.
a1470 Dives & Pauper (1496) vi. xxii. 270/2 There shall be brennynge fyre and smoder without ende.
a1618 J. Sylvester Urania lxxxii A thick, dark, pitchy Cloud of smoak, That round-about a kindling Fire suppresses With waving smother.
1657 P. Henry Diaries & Lett. (1882) 33 When a fire is first kindled there’s a great deale of smoke and smother.
1748 B. Robins & R. Walter Voy. round World by Anson iii. viii. 381 The great smother and smoke of the oakum.
1789 G. White Nat. Hist. Selborne 20 Nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation.
1828 J. R. Planché Desc. Danube i. 25 The distant dome of Saint Paul’s rising above the smother of our huge metropolis.
1882 R. D. Blackmore Christowell l Filled with blue sulphureous fog, and smother of bitumen.
a1616 W. Shakespeare As you like It (1623) i. ii. 277 Thus must I from the smoake into the smother .
1890 Daily News 25 June 5/1 They had gone from the smoke into the smother.
1565 J. Jewel Replie Hardinges Answeare Concl. sig. IIi3v Now the Sonne is vp: your Smooder is scattered.
1654 T. Gataker Disc. Apol. 12 A great smother of foggie fumes, raised by slanderous tongues.
1695 J. Collier Misc. upon Moral Subj. 2 Why else do they..spend their Taper in smoke and smother?
1809 B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas IV. x. i. 20 The mad blockhead was so suffocated by the smother of authorship.
1975 N. Nicholson Wednesday Early Closing ix. 176 A dull smother of hopelessness hung over the town like the smutch from a smoking rubbish dump.

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