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
cripple.

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

A part to tear a cat in

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

QUINCE
You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
BOTTOM
What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
QUINCE
A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.
BOTTOM
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.

This extraordinary catalogue of undsoundnesses

From The Taming of the Shrew (3.2), Petruccio’s arrival at his wedding:

BIONDELLO
Why, Petruccio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman’s crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.

It is a virtuoso description but one filled with textual issues since many of the terms were already rare at the time and nearly all the rest have fallen out of the language since. As an example – using the famous difficulty with the form/meaning of ‘mose’ the editor of the second Arden edition opens with ‘No one knows what this means’ and the editor of the third edition concludes with ‘whether the text or Biondello is at fault hardly matters, for OED cites both terms as obscure.’ Below are all the notes on this section (minus Petruccio’s entrance) from the older (second) Arden edition – the more recent editor either didn’t get into the spirit of the thing or assumed (probably correctly) most readers wouldn’t care for the details. But appreciation of the minutia leads to appreciation of the marvel of Shakespeare’s having so deep a vocabulary in so specific a realm. At least one critic (Madden, cited below, who also provided my title) took this line of thinking so far as to fall into biographizing speculation (294-96).

The standard works on horsemanship and farriery in Shakespeare’s day were Thomas Blundeville’s The Fowerchiefyst offices belongyng to Horsemanshippe (1565-6) [online here], and the many works of Gervase Markham. Almost all the diseases mentioned in this passage are discussed in Markham’s A discource of horsmanshippe (1593), and later editions; see also his Cauelarice (1607), and Maister-peece (1610). Petruchio’s horse receives detailed consideration in Madden, Diary, pp. 304-6 [online here], and Shakespeare’s England, 11. 423-6. Bond’s notes on this passage [in the first Arden edition], also, are detailed and extensive.

46-8. his . . . besides] F reads ‘his horse hip’d with an olde mothy saddle, and stirrops of no kindred: besides’,

which is nonsense. NCS transposes ‘with an old mothy saddle, and stirrups of no kindred’ to follow after ‘two broken points’, on the hypothesis that the transcriber omitted the line accidentally, added it later in the margin, and the compositor inserted it incorrectly. Subsequent editors have preferred Sisson’s solution (New Readings, 1. 165), which simply involves repunctuating the F text so that everything between ‘with’ and ‘kindred’ is a parenthesis.

46 hipped] ‘A horse was said to be hipped when his hip-bone was dislocated so that he halted much and trailed his legs’ (Shakespeare’s England, 424). See OED, Hipped, a.1.3

47 of no kindred] that do not match.

48 the glanders] ‘a contagious disease in horses, the chief symptoms of which are swellings beneath the jaw and discharge of mucous matter from the nostrils’ (OED, Glander, 2, quoting Dekker, Witch of Edmonton, iv. i, ‘My Horse this morning runs most pitiously of the glaunders’). Markham (quoted in Shakespeare’s England, 11. 424) disagreed, and called such inflammation the strangle, and the glanders he defined as ‘a Running Imposthume, ingendred either by cold of by Famine.’

48-9. mose in the chine] No one knows what this means. The verb ‘mose’ is not known outside this passage, and OED suggests that it is a corruption of ‘Mourn’. Under Mourn, v.2, OED gives ‘A perversion of the French name for glanders’, noting that it occurs only in phrases like ‘Mourn of the chine’. Markham’s Maister-peece (ch. 42) connects the two complaints as successive stages of one disease: ‘this consumption proceeds from a cold, which afterwards grows to a poze, then to a glaunders, and lastly to this mourning of the chine.’ He confines the symptoms of this last stage to a discharge from the nostrils, ‘dark, thinne, reddish, with little streakes of blood in it’. Thus, Biondello seems to be saying that the horse is suffering from the glanders, and is likely soon to display that disease’s terminal symptom. Madden {Diary, pp. 305-6) suggests that many of the words in this ‘catalogue of unsoundnesses’ differ from the accepted terms of farriery because Shakespeare did not, like Jonson, learn them from books, but from blacksmiths and in the stables. Hence, ‘mose’ might be a local, unrecorded, variant of ‘mourn’. It might equally be a misprint. All the possible meanings of ‘chine’ are discussed by Hilda M. Hulme {Explorations, pp. 126-30). Here, it is probably an alternative name for the disease {OED, sb.2 5), which has become fossilized in the ‘mourning’ phrase.

49. lampass] ‘a disease incident to horses, consisting in a swelling of the fleshy lining of the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth’ (OED, sb.1).

fashions] farcy, or farcin, ‘a disease of animals, especially of horses, closely allied to glanders’ (OED, Farcy, sb.). Cf. Greene, Looking Glasse {Plays and Poems, ed. Collins, 1. 152), 1. ii. 230 ff. : ‘For let a Horse take a cold, or be troubled with the bots, and we straight giue him a potion or a purgation, in such phisicall maner that he mends straight : if he haue outward diseases, as the spauin, splent, ring-bone, wind-gall or fashion, or, sir, a galled backe, we let him blood and clap a plaister to him with a pestilence.’
windgalls] ‘a soft tumour on either side of a horse’s leg just above the fetlock, caused by distension of the synovial bursa’ {OED).

50-1. sped with spavins] ruined by swellings of the leg-joints. There is a wet and a dry spavin. Cf. H8, 1. iii.12-13.

51 rayed] soiled, defiled; a variant form of Berayed {OED, v.2 5). Cf.iv. i. 3.
the yellows] jaundice {OED, Yellows, 1. 1). The symptoms in horses are a yellow colouring of the eyes, lips and nostrils, with sweating of ears and flank, faintness, and refusal to eat.

52. fives] a swelling of the parotid glands in horses; the strangles. The full form of the word is ‘avives’, which came into English through French or Spanish from an Arabic original (see OED, Avives, and Fives). The aphetic English form ‘vives’ seems to have been the normal use in Elizabethan farriery. Madden {Diary, p. 306) writes ‘No one but an ignorant smith, or one bred in a stable, would speak of “the fives”. If he had even a smattering of the book-learning of farriery, he would have known that the “vives” are “certaine kernels growing under the horse’s eare. . . . The Italians call them vivole.’
stark spoiled] completely ruined.
the staggers] ‘a name for various diseases affecting domestic animals, of which a staggering gait is a symptom’ (OED, sb.1.2). Markham’s Maisterpeece (quoted by Bond) describes it as ‘a dizzy madnesse of the braine . . . from surfeit of meat, surfeit of trauell, or from corruption of blood’, accompanied by ‘staggering and reeling of the horse, and beating of his head against the walles’.
begnawn with] gnawed at by. Cf. R3,I. iii. 222.

53. the bots] A bot, or bott, is, strictly speaking, the name of a parasitical worm or maggot; now restricted to the larvae of flies of the genus Oestrus. But the phrase ‘the botts’ came to be used for the disease caused by these parasites. Cf. 1H4,II. i. 9-10, ‘that is the next way to give poor jades the bots’.
swayed. . . back] ‘Of a horse: Having a depression in the spinal column, caused by strain’ (OED, Swayed, ppl.a. 1). Bond quotes Markham (Maisterpeece, ii. c. 46) : ‘A Horse is said to be swayed in the backe, when .. . he hath taken an extreame wrinch in the lower part of his backe below his short ribbes . . . whereof are a continuall reeling and rowling of the horses hinder parts in his going.’ F reads ‘Waid’, but the existence, well attested, of the phrase ‘swayed in the back’ makes Hanmer’s emendation universally acceptable. shoulder-shotten] ‘having a strained or dislocated shoulder’ (OED, Shoulder, sb. 9. c).

54. near-legged before] ‘knock-kneed in the front legs’ is Hibbard’s gloss, and it is probably the best available. OED (Near-legged) gives ‘Going near with the (fore) legs’, but quotes only this line from Shr. in support. By his ‘nere’ Madden (Diary, p. 305) understands ‘never’, suggesting that nearlegged’ conveys no distinct meaning, while ‘ne’er-legged’ plainly signifies what would be called in stable language ‘gone before’: ‘the “ne’erlegged” horse is bound to stumble, even without the additional infirmities enumerated in the text.’ NCS intends, by ‘near-legged’, the sense of standing with the fore-legs close together, and adds (p. 157), ‘As this is a virtue in a horse, it is clear that what the author intended to write was “near-legged behind” ‘. This is a lame solution.
half-cheeked] ‘applied to a bit in which the bridle is attached halfway up the cheek or side-piece, thus giving insufficient control over the horse’s mouth’ (Onions). See also Shakespeare’s England, 11. 421, for a slightly different interpretation (with illustrations). Madden (Diary, p. 308, n. 1) finds the term obscure.

55. headstall] ‘the part of a bridle or halter that fits round the head’ (OED).
sheep’s leather] less strong than the pigskin or cowhide which was normally used.

56. restrained] drawn tightly (OED,v. 6). Cf. 2H4, 1. i. 176.

57. new-repaired] Bond and others accept F’s text, arguing that ‘hath been’ is construed with both ‘burst’ and ‘repaired’. This is perfectly possible, and receives some support from the syntax of 11. 55-7, where ‘being restrained’ and ‘hath been’ are both dependent on the relative pronoun ‘which’. But Walker’s emendation (Crit. Exam., 11. 214) gives a less contorted sense, makes clearer the fact that the ‘repairing’ has been done not once but many times, and could easily be explained as a misreading of the manuscript copy, since o and e can be much alike in Secretary hand.
girth] the band of leather or cloth going round a horse’s belly and tightened to hold the saddle in place (OED^b.1 1).

58. pieced] mended, repaired. Cf.Ant., 1. v. 45-6, ‘I will piece/Her opulent throne with kingdoms’.
crupper] leather strap which passes in a loop from the saddle round the horse’s tail to prevent the saddle from slipping. Cf. iv. i. 73.
velure] velvet. In the heavy ridinggear used in Shakespeare’s day, a lady’s crupper might be covered with velvet and mounted with her initials in silver or brass studs.

60. pieced] The piecing, or mending, with pack-thread would apply to the velvet of the crupper, not to the lettering.

Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray

From The Taming of the Shrew (1.1.25-).

LUCENTIO
….
And therefore, Tranio, for the time I study,
Virtue and that part of philosophy
Will I apply that treats of happiness
By virtue specially to be achieved.
Tell me thy mind; for I have Pisa left
And am to Padua come, as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.
TRANIO
Mi perdonato, gentle master mine,
I am in all affected as yourself;
Glad that you thus continue your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray;
Or so devote to Aristotle’s cheques
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured:
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have
And practise rhetoric in your common talk;
Music and poesy use to quicken you;
The mathematics and the metaphysics,
Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you;
No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en:
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

I like the sentiment but there’s also an interesting pun here – one that John Lyly had used twice a few years earlier in Euphues. It is rooted in the near identical pronunciation at the time of ‘Stoic’ – as adherent of the philosophy – and ‘stock’ – as OED 1c ‘as the type of what is lifeless, motionless, or void of sensation. Hence, a senseless or stupid person.’ Lyly’s two uses are less compressed than Shakespeare’s (and better capture the continuing instability of spelling in both instances)

Who so severe as the Stoickes, which lyke stocks were moved with no melodie?

Thought he him a Stoycke, that he woulde not be moued, or a stocke that he could not?

For the bored, more of Shakespeare’s liftings from Lyly can be found here and the full (standardised spelling) text of Euphues here

When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale?

From Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (4.4)

Enter LAUNCE, with his his Dog
LAUNCE
When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him,
look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a
puppy; one that I saved from drowning, when three or
four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it.
I have taught him, even as one would say precisely,
‘thus I would teach a dog.’ I was sent to deliver
him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master;
and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he
steps me to her trencher and steals her capon’s leg:
O, ’tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself
in all companies! I would have, as one should say,
one that takes upon him to be a dog indeed, to be,
as it were, a dog at all things. If I had not had
more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did,
I think verily he had been hanged for’t; sure as I
live, he had suffered for’t; you shall judge. He
thrusts me himself into the company of three or four
gentlemanlike dogs under the duke’s table: he had
not been there–bless the mark!–a pissing while, but
all the chamber smelt him. ‘Out with the dog!’ says
one: ‘What cur is that?’ says another: ‘Whip him
out’ says the third: ‘Hang him up’ says the duke.
I, having been acquainted with the smell before,
knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that
whips the dogs: ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you mean to whip
the dog?’ ‘Ay, marry, do I,’ quoth he. ‘You do him
the more wrong,’ quoth I; ”twas I did the thing you
wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out
of the chamber. How many masters would do this for
his servant? Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the
stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had
been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese
he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.
Thou thinkest not of this now. Nay, I remember the
trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam
Silvia: did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I
do? when didst thou see me heave up my leg and make
water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? didst
thou ever see me do such a trick?

With Harold Goddard’s commentary on Lance from his classic The Meaning of Shakespeare (v. 1)

But how about Launce? someone will ask. How did such a masterpiece of characterization get into this early play? It is a question that must be confronted, unless we adopt the improbable hypothesis that he is a later interpolation. Launce—or rather Launce-and-his-dog-Crab, for the two are inseparable—is stamped with Shakespeare’s genius. He could walk into any play the author ever wrote and not jar us with any sense of immaturity in either conception or execution. Perhaps in this paradox we may find a clue to how Shakespeare wanted his play taken, how so apprentice-like a piece could have been produced so close chronologically to works that so utterly surpass it.

Launce has more sense, humor, and intelligence in his little finger than all the other men in the play have in their so-called brains combined, and it happens that in the course of it he gives his opinion of each of the two gentlemen of Verona. Proteus, his master, he tells us, is “a land of a knave,” and Valentine, the other gentleman, “a notable lubber.” Now it happens that the play confirms these judgments to the hilt. Indeed, Proteus’ treatment, in succession, of Julia, Valentine, and Silvia makes the name “knave” quite too good for him, as Silvia recognizes when she calls him a “subtle, perjur’d, false, disloyal man,” or when she declares that she would rather be eaten by a lion than rescued by such an abject creature. We have his own word for it that he is a sly trickster, and the story proves him to have been not only that but a perfidious friend, a liar, a coward, a slanderer, and a ruffian and would-be ravisher of the woman for whom he had deserted his first love. And this, forsooth, is the man whom his friend Valentine describes as having spent his youth in putting on an “angel-like perfection” of judgment and experience, until

He is complete in feature and in mind
With all good grace to grace a gentleman.

Valentine, it is true, is a paragon of virtue compared with such a bounder as Proteus, but his estimate of his friend does little credit to his intelligence and is enough in itself to justify the label “lubber” that Launce puts on him. But if Launce’s say-so is not enough, proof is afforded to an almost supernatural degree by the “ladder scene.” How any man could act more inanely than Valentine does on that occasion it would be hard to imagine, if we did not have the final incredible scene of the play in which the same man outdoes himself.

Now if Launce had reached the same conclusions about these two gentlemen that the action of the play forces on us independently, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare himself was not in the secret. It sets us wondering just what he meant by his title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and how far he may have written the play with his tongue in his cheek. If there is anything in this suggestion, we may have to revise our opinion of its juvenility and consider whether some of its apparent flaws are not consciously contrived ironical effects. This is the second of the two possible ways of taking the play.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, one of the better known ones but here rather for its thematic connection to a previously posted poem of Petronius and Ben Jonson’s translation of it.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

But, by all above, these blenches gave my heart another youth

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110 followed by a survey of ‘blench’ that I started on to satisfy an intuition about the multivalence of its use here – that it is first read as a condensed repetition of ‘I have looked on truth askance and strangely’ (definition 2 of the noun below) but then acquires from the line that follows (‘and worse essays’) a second sense close to definition 1, ‘the deception/trickery of philandering.’ This morphing sense allows the central lines 7-8 to better pivot from start to end focus. I don’t think I really got there – largely for lack of commitment to sifting Shakespeare’s uses of the verb form – but it was a nice autumn stroll and something was learned regardless.

Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have looked on truth 5
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind 10
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confined.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

Blench is a curious word. Shakespeare uses the verb from which it is derived five times but this noun form only here. The OED gives two definitions for the noun – 1)A trick, stratagem (with examples dating from 1250-1400) and 2)A turning of the eyes aside, a side glance (with this passage as the single attestation). More is said of the verb but the paragraph etymology concludes with humility – that ‘little can be done at present except to exhibit the senses actually found in use.’:

Etymology: A word or series of words of very obscure history. Sense 1 is evidently < Old English blęncan to deceive, cheat = Old Norse blekkja ( < blenkja ) to impose upon, which point to a Germanic type *blankjan , assumed to be the causative of a strong *blinkan blink v.; but, as no trace of the latter occurs in early times, the origin of blęncan is thus left uncertain. The northern form was blenk v. The sense-development is involved, from confusion of blenk and blink , of blench and blanch , probably also of the past tense blent with blent , past tense of blend v.1, and other causes: little can be done at present except to exhibit the senses actually found in use.

6 sense are then proposed

1. transitive. To deceive, cheat. Obsolete.
a1000—c1175
2.
a. intransitive. To start aside, so as to elude anything; to swerve, ‘shy’; to flinch, shrink, give way. a1250—1876
†b. Of a ship: To turn or heel over. Obsolete. a1300—a1300
3. transitive. To elude, avoid, shirk; to flinch from; to blink. a1663—1822
†4. transitive. To turn aside or away (the eyes). Obsolete. c1400—c1400
†5. transitive. To disconcert, foil, put out, turn aside. Cf. blenk v. 4. Obsolete. 1485—a1640
6. intransitive. Of the eyes: To lose firmness of glance, to flinch, quail.

Shakespeares other uses:

Hamlet 2.2
For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I’ll have these Players
Play something like the murther of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course.

Measure for Measure 4.5 (cited by the OED for 2a) –
The matter being afoot, keep your instruction,
And hold you ever to our special drift;
Though sometimes you do blench from this to that,
As cause doth minister.

Troilus and Cressida 1.1 –
Pandarus. Ay, to the leavening; but here’s yet in the word
‘hereafter’ the kneading, the making of the cake, the
heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must
stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips.

Troilus. Patience herself, what goddess e’er she be,
Doth lesser blench at sufferance than I do.
At Priam’s royal table do I sit;

Troilus and Cressida 2.2 –
I take to-day a wife, and my election
Is led on in the conduct of my will;
My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,
Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores
Of will and judgment: how may I avoid,
Although my will distaste what it elected,
The wife I chose? there can be no evasion
To blench from this and to stand firm by honour:

A Winter’s Tale 1.2 –
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
The purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps,
Give scandal to the blood o’ the prince my son,
Who I do think is mine and love as mine,
Without ripe moving to’t? Would I do this?
Could man so blench?


And beauty making beautiful old rhyme

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Multiple editors note similarities with Samuel Daniel‘s sonnet 46 but past the surface alignment of the openings I don’t much see it. And even the opening seems to move in two different directions – Daniel using a light priamel to launch a future-looking perspective, Shakespeare staying with the past and imagining how it looks forward to its future/his present.

Let others sing of knights and paladins
In aged accents and untimely words;
Paint shadows in imaginary lines
Which well the reach of their high wits records:
But I must sing of thee, and those fair eyes
Authentic shall my verse in time to come,
When yet th’ unborn shall say, “Lo where she lies
Whose beauty made him speak that else was dumb.”
These are the arks, the trophies I erect,
That fortify thy name against old age;
And these thy sacred virtues must protect
Against the dark, and time’s consuming rage.
Though th’ error of my youth they shall discover,
Suffice they show I liv’d and was thy lover.

O fearful meditation!

Shakespeare’s sonnet 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.