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I go, I go; look how I go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.

-- Puck, Act III Scene II, A Midsummer Night's Dream

This is a well-known line from a Shakespeare play, but did Shakespeare invent this simile? Was it already a known phrase in Elizabethan England - or at least, was there a saying about Tartar bows shooting fast? Did Tartar bows shoot faster than others? How much were the English even aware of the Tartars at that point in history - had they had much contact with them, or seen them in war?

Is there any historical context behind Shakespeare's use of this phrase?

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Stanley Wells' edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream (The New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967, 1995) has the following gloss for "Tartar":

The Oriental bow was of special power. The image may have come to Shakespeare by way of Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, X.686-7, 'she / Did fly as swift as arrow from a Turkey bow'.

R. A. Foakes' edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) has the following gloss for "Tartar's bow":

Noted for its power; the image was probably derived from Golding's Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 687, where Atalanta runs 'as swift as arrow from a Turkye bowe.' The word 'Tartar' was used vaguely to signify anyone from central Asia, including Turkey.

Sukanta Chaudhuri's edition of the play (The Arden Shakespeare, third series, 2017), essentially agrees with the above and adds a few more pieces of information:

Shakespeare was probably echoing Golding 10.687, 'as swift as arrow from a Turkye bowe', where Oved (Met. 10.588) has 'Scythica ... sagitta', 'Scythian bow'. Ancient Scythia overlapped with later 'Tartary', and Turk and Tartar were popularly associated: see 263, and OED Tartar n.² 1. The Turks had a venerable tradition of archery, reaching its highest point during the Ottoman Empire, and known to Europeans from the time of the Crusades. 'As swift as an arrow' is proverbial by itself (Dent, A322).

('Dent' refers to Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index by R. W. Dent (1981).)

Based on this, it is not the bow that is fast, but arrows shot from that type of bow (which sounds more plausible at any rate).

Ovid's Roman contemporaries knew archers on foot (the sagittarii) but armies that relied a lot on mounted archers were able to inflict major defeats on Roman armies, for example at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, where the Parthians defeated a numerically superior Roman army led by Crassus. This type of defeat led to the introduction of mounted archers in the Roman armies during the Principate.

The Scythians, the Parthians and the Turks all used composite bows, whereas Europeans, including the English, used self bows (i.e. made from a single piece of wood).

It is also worth knowing that

Turkish archers developed several unique techniques to aid in combat. One was the practice of holding several arrows in between the fingers of the draw hand, allowing fast repeat shots.

This could mean that Turkish archers may have been able to fire more arrows per minute than their English counterparts.

Mounted archers seem to have relied more on a thumb draw, i.e. using the thumb instead of the index and/or middle fingers to draw the string. For a description and explanation of bow types, arrow types and techniques used by eastern mounted archers, see the video Firing Arrows Like a Mongolian Warrior on The Modern Rogue (YouTube). (This video also does away with the misconception that a longer bow is necessarily more powerful than a shorter composite bow.)

With regard to the question what Elizabethans could know about the Turks, it is also worth noting that Elizabethan England did have some sort of diplomatic relationship with the Ottoman Empire. When Elizabeth I ascended the throne, she became the head of a non-Catholic nation that was surrounded by Catholic adversaries (Ireland, France and above all Spain). Using the dubious logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", Elizabeth sent emissaries to the Shah of Iran, the king of Morocco and the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. In 1599, she even sent a self-playing organ as a present to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey. One of the craftsmen that went to Turkey with the organ was Thomas Dallam, whose diary forms the basis of the book The Sultan's Organ (translated by John Mole and published in 2012).

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A partial answer - a few commentators on Shakespeare's works point out that by the Tartar's bow he meant the Cupid's bow as depicted on a number of popular paintings, sculptures. The same commentators claim that a bow of that particular shape was known (at Shakespeare's times) as Tartar's (as opposed to an English bow that was straight, less curved).

See also:

Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594-1596, 1596), I.iv.4-6

Benvolio (to Romeo): We’ll have no Cupid hoodwinked with a scarf,

Bearing a Tartar’s painted bow of lath,

Scaring the ladies like a crowkeeper…

See comments and the picture

Some historical facts on Tatar's bow:

The ottoman "Istanbul style" bow and the Tatar bow have a common ancestor somewhere in the 14th century, but we don't know anything about it or where it comes from geographically, but imo both are an ecclectic turkic development that carried over a number of idiosyncracies of construction back from turkic finds from 8th century Mongolia (e.g. the Zargalant bow).

The Tatar bow was popular in eastern europe (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, etc.) and ofc the Ottoman Empire, most of the surviving bows are from the 17th century, so there's quite a gap there.

There aren't surviving turkish bows from the 14th century, the earliest surviving ones (currently in the Topkapi Museum) are from the late 15th, and they're bows personally made by Sultan Bayezid II.

Both turkish and tatar differ from earlier static ear bows in terms of their similar biconvex cross-section of the core, where they're spliced, the extend of the horn strips into the ear and thus where the bow flexes (they're both bows with flexible kasan eyes). That's a feature that somebody came up between the 14th and 15th cent and can also be found in other branches of persian bows from that timeframe, but not in bows from the period of the Mongol Conquest. In any case, that's the most important feature in more "modern" bows, and possibly an invention from the area of modern day Iran or central asia. Persian archery, language and culture casts a very long shadow, but that's another story.

Source

Update #1:

From Shakespeare's Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary by Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin:

Editors note that that Tartar's bow is known for its power and that there is probably a reference to Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis (10.687), where Atalanta runs 'as swift as arrow from a Turkey bow'.

  • That's interesting! If it means Cupid's bow, it certainly ties in thematically with the main story of the play. – Rand al'Thor Aug 27 at 11:03
  • Is it possible to find a better source than Reddit for the history of the Tatar bow? – Rand al'Thor Aug 27 at 11:41
  • @Randal'Thor I only have Google at my disposal. There is quite a lot of info there on Tatar/Tartar vs English bows' qualities, as well as a lot of controversy about the facts too. Apparently, the history is full of legends and myths, has always been. Telling the truth from a myth is a tough task even for professional historians... Added an Update #1 to the answer. – tum_ Aug 27 at 14:04

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