Where once the great king of the gods showered the city with snows of gold

From Pindar’s Olympian 7 (24-52), for Diagoras of Rhodes, winner of boxing in 464. Often Pindar is just pretty and no other point is needed.

But about the minds of humans hang
numberless errors, and it is impossible to discover
what now and also in the end is best to happen to a man.
Thus it is that the founder of this land once struck
Alcmene’s bastard brother Licymnius
with a staff of hard olive in Tiryns
when he came from Midea’s chambers and killed him
in a fit of anger. Disturbances of the mind
lead astray even a wise man. He went to the god for an oracle,
and from the fragrant inner sanctum of his temple
the golden-haired god
told him to sail from the shore of Lerna
straight to the seagirt pasture,
where once the great king of the gods showered
the city with snows of gold,
when, by the skills of Hephaestus
with the stroke of a bronze-forged axe,
Athena sprang forth on the top of her father’s head
and shouted a prodigious battle cry,
and Heaven shuddered at her, and mother Earth.
At that time Hyperion’s son, divine bringer of light
to mortals, charged his dear children
to observe the obligation that was to come,
that they might be the first to build for the goddess
an altar in full view, and by making
a sacred sacrifice might cheer the hearts of the father
and his daughter of the thundering spear. Reverence
for one who has foresight plants excellence and its joys in humans,
but without warning some cloud of forgetfulness comes upon them
and wrests the straight path of affairs
from their minds.
Thus it was that they made their ascent without taking
the seed of blazing flame, and with fireless sacrifices
they made a sanctuary on the acropolis.
He [Zeus] brought a yellow cloud and upon them
rained gold in abundance; but the Gray-eyed Goddess
herself gave them every kind of skill to surpass mortals
with their superlative handiwork.
Their streets bore works of art in the likeness of beings
that lived and moved, and great was their fame.

ἀμφὶ δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων φρασὶν ἀμπλακίαι
ἀναρίθμητοι κρέμανται: τοῦτο δ᾽ ἀμάχανον εὑρεῖν,
ὅ τι νῦν ἐν καὶ τελευτᾷ φέρτατον ἀνδρὶ τυχεῖν.
καὶ γὰρ Ἀλκμήνας κασίγνητον νόθον
σκάπτῳ θένων
σκληρᾶς ἐλαίας ἔκταν᾽ ἐν Τίρυνθι Λικύμνιον ἐλθόντ᾽ ἐκ θαλάμων Μιδέας
τᾶσδέ ποτε χθονὸς οἰκιστὴρ χολωθείς. αἱ δὲ φρενῶν ταραχαὶ
παρέπλαγξαν καὶ σοφόν. μαντεύσατο δ᾽ ἐς θεὸν ἐλθών.
τῷ μὲν ὁ Χρυσοκόμας εὐώδεος ἐξ ἀδύτου ναῶν πλόον
εἶπε Λερναίας ἀπ᾽ ἀκτᾶς εὐθὺν ἐς ἀμφιθάλασσον νομόν,
ἔνθα ποτὲ βρέχε θεῶν βασιλεὺς ὁ μέγας χρυσέαις νιφάδεσσι πόλιν,
ἁνίχ᾽ Ἁφαίστου τέχναισιν
χαλκελάτῳ πελέκει πατέρος Αθαναία κορυφὰν κατ᾽ ἄκραν
ἀνορούσαισ᾽ ἀλάλαξεν ὑπερμάκει βοᾷ:
Οὐρανὸς δ᾽ ἔφριξέ νιν καὶ Γαῖα μάτηρ.
τότε καὶ φαυσίμβροτος δαίμων Ὑπεριονίδας
μέλλον ἔντειλεν φυλάξασθαι χρέος
παισὶν φίλοις,
ὡς ἂν θεᾷ πρῶτοι κτίσαιεν βωμὸν ἐναργέα, καὶ σεμνὰν θυσίαν θέμενοι
πατρί τε θυμὸν ἰάναιεν κόρᾳ τ᾽ ἐγχειβρόμῳ. ἐν δ᾽ ἀρετὰν
ἔβαλεν καὶ χάρματ᾽ ἀνθρώποισι Προμαθέος Αἰδώς:
ἐπὶ μὰν βαίνει τε καὶ λάθας ἀτέκμαρτα νέφος,
καὶ παρέλκει πραγμάτων ὀρθὰν ὁδὸν
ἔξω φρενῶν.
καὶ τοὶ γὰρ αἰθοίσας ἔχοντες σπέρμ᾽ ἀνέβαν φλογὸς οὔ: τεῦξαν δ᾽ ἀπύροις ἱεροῖς
ἄλσος ἐν ἀκροπόλει: κείνοις ὁ μὲν ξανθὰν ἀγαγὼν νεφέλαν
πολὺν ὗσε χρυσόν: αὐτὰ δέ σφισιν ὤπασε τέχναν
πᾶσαν ἐπιχθονίων Γλαυκῶπις ἀριστοπόνοις χερσὶ κρατεῖν.
ἔργα δὲ ζωοῖσιν ἑρπόντεσσί θ᾽ ὁμοῖα κέλευθοι φέρον:
ἦν δὲ κλέος βαθύ.

Learners who are boisterous and long-winded are like a pair of crows that cry in vain

From Pindar’s Olympian 2 (82-88):

…I have many swift arrows
under my arm
in their quiver
that speak to those who understand, but for the whole subject, they need
interpreters. Wise is he who knows many things
by nature, whereas learners who are boisterous
and long-winded are like a pair of crows that cry in vain
against the divine bird of Zeus.

… πολλά μοι ὑπ᾿
ἀγκῶνος ὠκέα βέλη
ἔνδον ἐντὶ φαρέτρας
φωνάεντα συνετοῖσιν· ἐς δὲ τὸ πὰν ἑρμανέων
χατίζει. σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ·
μαθόντες δὲ λάβροι
παγγλωσσίᾳ κόρακες ὣς ἄκραντα γαρύετον

Διὸς πρὸς ὄρνιχα θεῖον·

A scholia adds:

κόρακες· . . .αἰνίττεται Βακχυλίδην καὶ Σιμωνίδην, ἑαυτὸν λέγων ἀετόν, κόρακας δὲ τοὺς ἀντιτέχνους

Crows – he makes a riddling reference to Bacchylides and Simonides, calling himself an eagle and his rivals crows.

But that’s the sort of thing scholiasts always add.

If to do were as easy as to know what were good todo

Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1.2):

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s
cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o’er a cold decree – such a hare is madness the
youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the

Related to I see the better … Ovid, Petrarch, and Foscolo and I know what’s right, but I don’t do it.

That is the scientific method

A rather sharp observation just possibly applicable to many academics, from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. The speaking character has an affected issue with his -r’s.

Hardin remained silent for a short while. Then he said, “When did Lameth write his book?”

 “Oh — I should say about eight hundwed yeahs ago. Of cohse, he has based it lahgely on the pwevious wuhk of Gleen.”

 “Then why rely on him? Why not go to Arcturus and study the remains for yourself?”

 Lord Dorwin raised his eyebrows and took a pinch of snuff hurriedly. “Why, whatevah foah, my deah fellow?”

 “To get the information firsthand, of course.”

 “But wheah’s the necessity? It seems an uncommonly woundabout and hopelessly wigmawolish method of getting anywheahs. Look heah, now, I’ve got the wuhks of all the old mastahs — the gweat ahchaeologists of the past. I wigh them against each othah — balance the disagweements — analyze the conflicting statements — decide which is pwobably cowwect — and come to a conclusion. That is the scientific method. At least” — patronizingly –”as I see it. How insuffewably cwude it would be to go to Ahctuwus, oah to Sol, foah instance, and blundah about, when the old mastahs have covahed the gwound so much moah effectually than we could possibly hope to do.”

 Hardin murmured politely, “I see.”

It’s a song. Or a riddle. It’s sorrow.

From Christopher Patton’s Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book. I’d been so impressed a few months back with Patton’s translations of Anglo-Saxon in Curious Masonry (post here) that I’d bought this sequel-expansion right away – but then, in flightiness, failed to open it until yesterday. Patton is considerably more aggressive than most in his translations and since I can’t find a decent way of including his 7 pages of justifying notes here, I’m hoping that Craig Williamson’s more ‘normal’ rendering from his Complete Old English Poems can serve as something like anchoring comparison.

Her Case
It’s a song. Or a riddle. It’s sorrow.
I will lay it out for you, the disorder
I went through as a young woman;
it’s not in the past, nor just for now,
I am always in the dark of this bind,
that started when my lord went off
from home over seaplay; each dawn
me wondering what land he was in.

Then I went to seek and serve him –
bereft of husband, miserable wretch-
his family started to think it through,
in secret, how to divide us, some way
that we should live two worlds apart,
with me here wanting, and him there.

My lord’s told me to hold hard here.
I’ve few friends at this patch of earth.
Few to love, and my thoughts are sad.

When I found a man as fitted as he
was – out of luck, and melancholy,
hoard-thoughted, murder-minded,
our hearts were giddy as we swore
we’d not be parted except by death
– nothing else – that’s been turned
round now thought, as if it’d never
been, our friendship. Near and far
I endure my heartfriend’s hatred.
He said to me, wait in these woods,
under this oak, in an earthhollow.
It’s a hall of old soil. I am all desire.

The hills are high here, valleys dim,
sharp thorns guard the enclosure,
a joyless berth. Often I’m caught
in rage at his going. Earthfriends
live and love in their beds, alone
I dawn in the earth under an oak
alone, abiding the summer’s long
day, bereaved, banished, weeping
for thoughts that give me no rest –

and the desire that seized this life?
that young man, though sad inside
and hard of mind, must bear himself
cheerfully as he suffers breastcares,
endless swarms of sorrow. Whether
all the world’s joys are his, or he sits
in guilt at the hill’s stone foot, rimed
by storm, a tired lord surrounded by
water, in some drear hall abides my
fried. And often he brings to mind
a kindlier hearth – woe to that one
who lives to long for what he loved.

And Williamson:

The Wife’s Lament
I tell this story from my grasp of sorrow—
I tear this song from a clutch of grief.
My stretch of misery from birth to bed rest
Has been unending, no more than now.
My mind wanders—my heart hurts.

My husband, my lord, left hearth and home,
Crossing the sea- road, the clash of waves.
My heart heaved each dawn, not knowing
Where in the world my lord had gone.

I followed, wandering a wretched road,
Seeking some service, knowing my need
For a sheltering home. I fled from woe.

His cruel kinsmen began to plot,
Scheming in secret to split us apart.
They forced us to live like exiles
Wretched, distant lives. Now I lie with longing.

My lord commanded me to live here
Where I have few friends, little love,
And no sense of home. Now my heart mourns.

I had found the best man for me,
My husband and companion, hiding his mind,
Closing his heart, bound in torment,
Brooding on murder beneath a gentle bearing.

How often we promised each other at night
Th at nothing would part us except death.
But fate is twisted—everything’s turned.
Our love is undone, our closeness uncoupled.
The web of our wedding is unwoven.

Something now seems as if it never was—
Our friendship together. Far and near,
I must suffer the feud of my dear lord’s brooding.

I was forced to live in a cold earth- cave,
Under an oak tree in an unhappy wood.
My earth-house is old. I lie with longing.

Here are steep hills and gloomy valleys,
Dark hideouts under twisted briars,
Bitter homes without joy. My lord’s leaving
Seizes my mind, harrows my heart.

Somewhere friends share a lover’s bed,
Couples clinging to their closeness at dawn,
While I sing each morning’s sorrow
Outside my earth-cave, under my oak tree,
Where I spend the summer- long day,
Mourning my exile, the cares of my heart,
Th e wandering of my tormented mind.
My spirit cannot rest, my heart be healed,
My mind be free from this life’s longing.

A young man must surely wake at dawn
With hard-edged sadness in his lonely heart.
He must brook misery beneath a gentle bearing
While he suffers his own stretch of sorrow,
Endless and undoing. May he look for joy
In an empty bed, exiled also in an alien land—
So that my friend sits under stone cliffs,
Pelted by storms, stranded by waves,
Chilled to the bone in his cruel hall.
In the comfort of cold, the embrace of anguish,
He may remember a kinder hearth and home.
Woe waits for the lover who lies longing.

The Prayer, Made in Ballat Form Bi Villon For His Mither

I spent some time last month looking at the history of Francois Villon translations (see Three early translators of Francois Villon) and just recently got a (partial) copy of the most curious effort I discovered, a volume titled Seeven poem o Maister Francis Villon, made owre intil scots bi Tom Scott. Here first is a brief biography of Scott borrowed from a TLS poem of the week (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/poem-week-sons-o-son/):

Tom Scott (1918–1995) was part of a generation of gifted Scottish poets, born in or around the First World War, which included W. S. Graham, George Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean and Edwin Morgan, and encompassed four linguistic traditions: English, standard Scottish English, Lallans and Gaelic. Scott was brought up during the Great Depression; his formal education came late, although he was already publishing poems in the London literary press during the Second World War. But it was in the 1950s that Scott found his real voice in Lallans or “synthetic Scots”’, the English that evolved north of the border in the late medieval and early sixteenth century, and which was then the inspiration for the twentieth century Scottish Literary Renaissance spearheaded by Hugh MacDiarmid. Scott was much influenced by the makar William Dunbar, while the opening up of his poetic sensibility to Scotland’s continental connections in earlier centuries helped to complete his transformation as a poet. His translations of François Villon are one of the greatest fruits of this fusion, as are his visionary long poems The Ship and Brand the Builder.

And here is his rendering of Villon’s imagined prayer of his mother’s, followed for comparison by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s version of the same. Plus some help with the dialect from an online Scots dictionary.

The Prayer, Made in Ballat Form Bi Villon For His Mither

Heivenly Leddy, earthly sovereign,
Empress o the ill-reekin bogs o hell,
Receive ye me, your humble christian,
Whase dearest wish is wi your saunts tae dwell,
Though no for aucht o worth she’s duin hersel.
Mistress o ma saul, sich Grace as Thine
Can faur ootweigh the gretest sin o mine;
Waantin that Grace, nae saul, ye will agree,
Can e’er win through tae Heiven, as I weill ken.
In this sweet faith I’ll willin live an dee.

Tell yir Son tae coont me as his ain,
That aa ma sins he micht forgie as weill,
Juist as yon Egyptian’s were forgien,
Or Theophil’s, the scriever chiel wha fell
Intil the horny fingers o the deil,
Fair lost, until ye itercedit syne.
Sae, pit in a word for this auld quean
Virgin Mithor o the Son that we
Aa celebrate at Mass as the Divine.
In this sweet faith, I’ll willin live an dee.

Aye, weill I ken I’m juist a puir carlin
Wha’s nevir larnt tae scrieve her name, or spell.
In oor bit pairish kirk though, I hae seen
Picters o Heiven, whaur angels hairp, an swell
The luth …. an o the Pit whaur sinners byle.
Yin turned me seick, the tither weill again.
Whan I am daid, lat Heiven alane be mine
Goddess, tae whase airms aa sinners flee.
Trim you ma lamp o draid, au lat it shine,
For in this faith I’d willin live an dee.

Virgin wha bore, maist worthy sovereign,
Iesu, wha has owre us eternal reign,
Lord of Lords, wha took oor waikness on,
Leain Heiven for aa oor sins tae dree,
Offerin his bricht youth tae daith an pain.
Nae ither Lord hae we, I’ll aye maintain;
In this sweet faith I’ll willin live an dee.


Lady of Heaven and earth, and therewithal
Crowned Empress of the nether clefts of Hell,—
I, thy poor Christian, on thy name do call,
Commending me to thee, with thee to dwell,
Albeit in nought I be commendable.
But all mine undeserving may not mar
Such mercies as thy sovereign mercies are;
Without the which (as true words testify)
No soul can reach thy Heaven so fair and far.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

Unto thy Son say thou that I am His,
And to me graceless make Him gracious.
Sad Mary of Egypt lacked not of that bliss,
Nor yet the sorrowful clerk Theophilus,
Whose bitter sins were set aside even thus
Though to the Fiend his bounden service was.
Oh help me, lest in vain for me should pass
(Sweet Virgin that shalt have no loss thereby!)
The blessed Host and sacring of the Mass.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,
I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore.
Within my parish-cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,
And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be,—
Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;
And that which faith desires, that let it see.
For in this faith I choose to live and die.

O excellent Virgin Princess! thou didst bear
King Jesus, the most excellent comforter,
Who even of this our weakness craved a share
And for our sake stooped to us from on high,
Offering to death His young life sweet and fair.
Such as He is, Our Lord, I Him declare,
And in this faith I choose to live and die.

Whenever I finally get a full copy I’d like to have it scanned, OCR’d and put up on the internet archive since Scott’s work is too good to disappear altogether for failure to reprint.

If thou hadst not so much wit, I could find in my heart to marry thee

From John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (4.2), reminiscent of Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado and, as there, the only genuine relationship in the play.

Tysefew. But do you hear, lady?—you proud ape, you! What was the jest you brake of me even now?

Crispinella. Nothing. I only said you were all mettle;—that you had a brazen face, a leaden brain, and a copper beard.

Tysefew. Quicksilver,—thou little more than a dwarf, and something less than a woman.

Crispinella. A wisp! a wisp! a wisp!—will you go to the banquet?

Tysefew. By the Lord, I think thou wilt marry shortly too; thou growest somewhat foolish already.   

Crispinella. O, i’faith, ’tis a fair thing to be married, and a necessary. To hear this word must! If our husbands be proud, we must bear his contempt; if noisome, we must bear with the goat under his armholes; if a fool, we must bear his bable; and, which is worse, if a loose liver, we must live upon unwholesome reversions; where, on the contrary side, our husbands—because they may, and we must—care not for us. Things hoped with fear, and got with strugglings, are men’s high pleasures, when duty palls and flats their appetite.   

Tysefew. What a tart monkey is this! By heaven! if thou hadst not so much wit, I could find in my heart to marry thee. Faith, bear with me for all this!

Crispinella. Bear with thee? I wonder how thy mother could bear thee ten months in her belly, when I cannot endure thee two hours in mine eye.

Tysefew. Alas, for your sweet soul! By the Lord, you are grown a proud, scurvy, apish, idle, disdainful, scoffing—God’s foot! because you have read Euphues and his England, Palmerin de Oliva, and the Legend of Lies!

Crispinella. Why, i’faith, yet, servant, you of all others should bear with my known unmalicious humours: I have always in my heart given you your due respect. And Heaven may be sworn, I have privately given fair speech of you, and protested——

Tysefew. Nay, look you; for my own part, if I have not as religiously vow’d my heart to you,—been drunk to your health, swallowed flap-dragons, ate glasses, drunk urine, stabb’d arms, and done all the offices of protested gallantry for your sake; and yet you tell me I have a brazen face, a leaden brain, and a copper beard! Come, yet, and it please you.  

Crispinella. No, no;—you do not love me.

Tysefew. By —— but I do now; and whosoever dares say that I do not love you, nay, honour you, and if you would vouchsafe to marry——

Crispinella. Nay, as for that, think on’t as you will, but God’s my record,—and my sister knows I have taken drink and slept upon’t,—that if ever I marry, it shall be you; and I will marry, and yet I hope I do not say it shall be you neither.  

Tysefew. By Heaven, I shall be as soon weary of health as of your enjoying!—Will you cast a smooth cheek upon me?

Crispinella. I cannot tell. I have no crump’d shoulders, my back needs no mantle, and yet marriage is honourable. Do you think ye shall prove a cuckold?

Tysefew. No, by the Lord, not I!   

Crispinella. Why, I thank you, i’faith. Heigho! I slept on my back this morning, and dreamt the strangest dreams. Good Lord! How things will come to pass! Will you go to the banquet?

Tysefew. If you will be mine, you shall be your own:—my purse, my body, my heart, is yours,—only be silent in my house, modest at my table, and wanton in my bed;—and the Empress of Europe cannot content, and shall not be contented, better.   

Crispinella. Can any kind heart speak more discreetly affectionately? My father’s consent; and as for mine——

Tysefew. Then thus, and thus, so Hymen should begin; Sometimes a falling out proves falling in.

The Dutch Courtesan

A couple of exchanges from John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (from 1.2 and 3.1). I think the language is lively enough to stand without context or notes but there is an old edition available online that has a few pointers (here).

Surprisingly, there is also a complete filming of a 2013 University of York production available on Youtube (embedded below). I always prefer period-original productions but this one’s pretty delightful, especially given that there’s little to no chance of ever seeing another performance.

Cocledemoy. Hang toasts! I rail at thee, my worshipful organ-bellows that fills the pipes, my fine rattling fleamy cough o’ the lungs, and cold with a pox? I rail at thee? what, my right precious pandress, supportress of barber-surgeons, and enhanceress of lotium and diet-drink? I rail at thee, necessary damnation? I’ll make an oration, I, in praise of thy most courtly in-fashion and most pleasureable function, I.

Mary Faugh. Ay, prithee do, I love to hear myself praised, as well as any old lady, I.

Cocledemoy. List then:—a bawd; first for her profession or vocation, it is most worshipful of all the twelve companies; for, as that trade is most honourable that sells the best commodities—as the draper is more worshipful than the pointmaker, the silkman more worshipful than the draper, and the goldsmith more honourable than both, little Mary, so the bawd above all: her shop has the best ware; for where these sell but cloth, satins, and jewels, she sells divine virtues, as virginity, modesty, and such rare gems; and those not like a petty chapman, by retail, but like a great merchant, by wholesale; wa, ha, ho! And who are her customers? Not base corn-cutters or sowgelders, but most rare wealthy knights, and most rare bountiful lords, are her customers. Again, whereas no trade or vocation profiteth but by the loss and displeasure of another—as the merchant thrives not but by the licentiousness of giddy and unsettled youth; the lawyer, but by the vexation of his client; the physician, but by the maladies of his patient—only my smooth-gumm’d bawd lives by others’ pleasure, and only grows rich by others’ rising. O merciful gain, O righteous in-come! So much for her vocation, trade, and life. As for their death, how can it be bad, since their wickedness is always before their eyes, and a death’s head most commonly on their middle-finger? To conclude, ’tis most certain they must needs both live well and die well, since most commonly they live in Clerkenwell, and die in Bride-well. Dixi, Mary.

Crispinella. Pish! sister Beatrice, prithee read no more; my stomach o’ late stands against kissing extremely.

Beatrice. Why, good Crispinella?

Crispinella. By the faith and trust I bear to my face, ’tis grown one of the most unsavoury ceremonies: body o’ beauty! ’tis one of the most unpleasing injurious customs to ladies: any fellow that has but one nose on his face, and standing collar and skirts also lined with taffety sarcenet, must salute us on the lips as familiarly—Soft skins save us! there was a stub-bearded John-a-Stile with a ployden’s face saluted me last day and struck his bristles through my lips; I ha’ spent ten shillings in pomatum since to skin them again. Marry, if a nobleman or a knight with one lock visit us, though his unclean goose-turd-green teeth ha’ the palsy, his nostrils smell worse than a putrified marrowbone, and his loose beard drops into our bosom, yet we must kiss him with a cursy, a curse! for my part, I had as lieve they would break wind in my lips.

For comparison between the text and the stage, the first passage above starts at 11:00 and the second at 1:01 (both with minor vocab modifications for audience benefit).

A part to tear a cat in

From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.2):

You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.
That will ask some tears in the true performing of
it: if I do it, let the audience look to their
eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some
measure. To the rest: yet my chief humour is for a
tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to
tear a cat in, to make all split.

The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus’ car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.

This was lofty! Now name the rest of the players.
This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein; a lover is
more condoling.

The OED gives the following definition for ‘to tear a cat’:

to tear a (the) cat: to play the part of a roistering hero; to rant and bluster: cf. tear-cat adj. and n. at tear- comb. form 2. Obsolete.
1600 W. Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream i. ii. 25 I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to teare a Cat in, to make all split. View more context for this quotation
1610 Histrio-mastix 8 Sirrha is this you, would rend and teare the cat upon a stage?

and connects it to a compound ‘tear-cat’:

tear-cat adj. and n.Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈtɛːkat/, U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈtɛrˌkæt/ (a) adj. swaggering, ranting, bombastic (see tear v.1 1d); (b) n. a bully, swaggerer, ‘fire-eater’.
1606 J. Day Ile of Guls sig. A2v I had rather heare two good baudie iests, then a whole play of such teare-cat thunderclaps.
1611 T. Middleton & T. Dekker Roaring Girle sig. K3v Iac. Dap. What’s thy name fellow souldier? T. Cat. I am cal’d by those that haue seen my valour, Tear-Cat. Omn. Teare-Cat?
1821 W. Scott Kenilworth I. xii. 316 A man of mettle, one of those ruffling tear-cats, who maintain their master’s quarrel with sword and buckler.

Both definitions are clear enough for use but neither is satisfying for origin. All my editions are content with citing some combination of the above parallels and the only thing I can readily find that looks deeper is a 2008 piece from the Kenyon Review that documents a few editorial explanations proposed through the years. Borrowing from there we find:

Here, for example, are some tearings of cats, from “A Midsummer-night’s Dream, By William Shakespeare”, ed. Henry Cuningham, Harold F. Brooks, Published by Methuen, 1905:

“Tear a cat: Apparently a proverbial phrase for tearing a passion to tatters (Hamlet, III. ii. 10). Edwards, Canons of Criticism, 1765, p. 52, thinks this a burlesque upon Hercules’s killing a lion.

Heath, Revisal of Shakespeare’s Text, 1765, p. 45, takes Warburton’s emendation, “cap,” seriously, and supposes “it might not be unusual for a player, in the violence of his rant, sometimes to tear his cap.”

Capell takes Bottom seriously, and supposes ‘he might have seen ‘Ercles’ [Heracles] acted, and some strange thing torn, which he mistook for a cat.’”

More adventurous is Andrew Becket in Shakespeare’s Himself Again (pg 267):

The sense is wholly mistaken by the editors. It is not the domestic animal the cat, which is spoken of. For what can possibly be understood of “a part to tear a cat in?” We must read: “a part to tear: a catin.” ” To tear,” is to rant, to bluster. Catin is a french word signifying a drab, a low, vulgar woman. ‘A’ is the french particle which has the power of the adverb ‘like’. The whole will run thus: ‘My chief humor is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely, or a part in which I might rant and bluster like a very drab, a common roarer.’ Hamlet, we may remember, says;

‘Must I unpack my heart with words,
And fall a railing like a very drab.’

In the quotations in which tear cat appears, it should be noted that ‘cat’ is contracted of ‘catin’. Thus, in the Comedy of the Roaring Girl, Tear-cat (roaring woman) [is] the name of a character of the play. It must not be objected that Tear-cat is, in some of the pieces, a male character. A man may be said to rant or rail like a drab, a common woman– and we have an example of it in the lines from Hamlet.”

For my part, the only gesture to an explanation I can come up with is built largely on a later line from the same play when Lysander, trying to get rid of Hermia, says (3.2.260):

Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! vile thing, let loose,
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!

This is the only use I see in Shakespeare of a cat as ‘clinging thing’ but I can (with blind optimism) imagine ‘tear a cat’ coming about as a compression of the idea ‘act a part with such violent gestures that you’d dislodge a clinging cat.’ With even blinder optimism I could pull this one step further from anything to do with an actual cat and link it back to the prototypical stage swaggerer Hercules – the originating idea then becoming a Hercules playing his part so violently that he tears/disorders the cat (=lion) skin integral to his costume.

Some stories of the elder Publius Africanus

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights (4.18). Not to assert wrongdoing on his part but my modern sensibility finds these tales more amusing if I imagine Scipio here as testing the limits of his own capacity to pull off a bluff.

Some stories of the elder Publius Africanus, taken from the annals and well worth relating.

How greatly the earlier Scipio Africanus excelled in the splendour of his merits, how lofty and noble of spirit he was, and to what an extent he was upheld by consciousness of his own rectitude, is evident from many of his words and acts. Among these are the following two instances of his extreme self-confidence and sense of superiority.

When Marcus Naevius, tribune of the commons, accused him before the people and declared that he had received money from king Antiochus to make peace with him in the name of the Roman people on favourable and easy terms, and when the tribune added sundry other charges which were unworthy of so great a man, then Scipio, after a few preliminary remarks such as were called for by the dignity and renown of his life, said: “I recall, fellow citizens, that this is the day on which in Africa in a mighty battle I conquered Hannibal the Carthaginian, the most bitter enemy of your power, and won for you a splendid peace and a glorious victory. Let us then not be ungrateful to the gods, but, I suggest, let us leave this worthless fellow, and go at once to render thanks to Jupiter, greatest and best of gods.” So saying, he turned away and set out for the Capitol. Thereupon the whole assembly, which had gathered to pass judgment on Scipio, left the tribune, accompanied Scipio to the Capitol, and then escorted him to his home with the joy and expressions of gratitude suited to a festal occasion. The very speech is in circulation which is believed to have been delivered that day by Scipio, and those who deny its authenticity at least admit that these words which I have quoted were spoken by Scipio.

There is also another celebrated act of his. Certain Petilii, tribunes of the commons, influenced they say by Marcus Cato, Scipio’s personal enemy, and instigated to appear against him, insisted most vigorously in the senate on his rendering an account of the money of Antiochus and of the booty taken in that war; for he had been deputy to his brother Lucius Scipio Asiaticus, the commander in that campaign. Thereupon Scipio arose, and taking a roll from the fold of his toga, said that it contained an account of all the money and all the booty; that he had brought it to be publicly read and deposited in the treasury. “But that,” said he, “I shall not do now, nor will I so degrade myself.” And at once, before them all, he tore the roll across with his own hands and rent it into bits, indignant that an account of money taken in war should be required of him, to whose account the salvation of the Roman State and its power ought to be credited.

De P. Africano superiore sumpta quaedam ex annalibus memoratu dignissima.

Scipio Africanus antiquior quanta virtutum gloria praestiterit et quam fuerit altus animi atque magnificus et qua sui conscientia subnixus, plurimis rebus quae dixit quaeque fecit declaratum est. Ex quibus sunt haec duo exempla eius fiduciae atque exuperantiae ingentis.

Cum M. Naevius tribunus plebis accusaret eum ad populum diceretque accepisse a rege Antiocho pecuniam, ut condicionibus gratiosis et mollibus pax cum eo populi Romani nomine fieret, et quaedam item alia crimini daret indigna tali viro, tum Scipio pauca praefatus quae dignitas vitae suae atque gloria postulabat, “Memoria,” inquit, “Quirites, repeto, diem esse hodiernum quo Hannibalem Poenum imperio vestro inimicissimum magno proelio vici in terra Africa pacemque et victoriam vobis peperi spectabilem. Non igitur simus adversum deos ingrati et, censeo, relinquamus nebulonem hunc, eamus hinc protinus Iovi optimo maximo gratulatum.” Id cum dixisset, avertit et ire ad Capitolium coepit. Tum contio universa, quae ad sententiam de Scipione ferendam convenerat, relicto tribuno, Scipionem in Capitolium comitata atque inde ad aedes eius cum laetitia et gratulatione sollemni prosecuta est. Fertur etiam oratio quae videtur habita eo die a Scipione, et qui dicunt eam non veram, non eunt infitias quin haec quidem verba fuerint, quae dixi, Scipionis.

Item aliud est factum eius praeclarum. Petilii quidam tribuni plebis a M., ut aiunt, Catone, inimico Scipionis, comparati in eum atque inmissi, desiderabant in senatu instantissime ut pecuniae Antiochinae praedaeque in eo bello captae rationem redderet; fuerat enim L. Scipioni Asiatico, fratri suo, imperatori in ea provincia legatus. Ibi Scipio exurgit et, prolato e sinu togae libro, rationes in eo scriptas esse dixit omnis pecuniae omnisque praedae; illatum, ut palam recitaretur et ad aerarium deferretur. “Sed enim id iam non faciam,” inquit, “nec me ipse afficiam contumelia,” eumque librum statim coram discidit suis manibus et concerpsit, aegre passus quod cui salus imperii ac reipublicae accepta ferri deberet rationem pecuniae praedatae posceretur.