8

In The Taming of the Shrew, after Baptista decrees that Bianca cannot marry while Kate remains single, Hortensio proposes to Gremio that they set aside their rivalry over Bianca and work together to find Kate a husband:

But come, since this bar in law makes us friends, it shall be so far forth friendly maintained till by helping Baptista's eldest daughter to a husband we set his youngest free for a husband, and then have to 't afresh. Sweet Bianca! Happy man be his dole. He that runs fastest gets the ring. How say you, Signor Gremio?

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew I.i.137–143. Accessed at folger.edu 28 December 2023.

I am having trouble understanding Happy man be his dole. What does it mean for a man to "be" his dole?

3
  • Obviously it means 'He will be a lucky man who wins Bianca', but I'm not sure why Shakespeare didn't write Happiness be his dole. Dec 28, 2023 at 17:08
  • Since dole means a hand-out or apportionment or literally the cards you are dealt (doled out). The speaker is just emphasizing that Sweet Bianca is a prize, the man that gets dealt the Bianca card is in a position to be a Happy (lucky) Man, and with the next sentence "let the best man win." So modern colloquial: Let's do this! We'll work together and one of us might get be dealt the Bianca card which is a sweet set-up for a happy life. The @verbose answer below is really good too, but this is the jist of it.
    – DanO
    Dec 29, 2023 at 19:48
  • To whoever edited this question to reformat the lines as blank verse: The lines are prose. They are not verse.
    – verbose
    Dec 31, 2023 at 10:20

2 Answers 2

16

The phrase is proverbial. The OED has this under dole:

Portion or lot (in life); fate, destiny: chiefly in proverbial phrase happy man be his dole. c1520– archaic

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “dole (n.1), sense 4,” July 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/8309182974.

We think of happy as meaning cheerful, but an older sense is fortunate; consider hapless. Brewer's gloss of this phrase verifies that this meaning pertains here:

Happy man be his dole. May his share or lot be that of a happy or fortunate man.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Revised and Enlarged, s.v. "Dole". New York: Harper, n.d. pp. 297–298. Retrieved from archive.org 28 December 2023.

Both happy and hapless derive in turn from hap, which the OED defines as follows:

The chance or fortune that falls to a person; (one's) luck, lot; (also) an instance of this. Frequently modified by good (also bad, evil, etc.) and by possessive adjective. c1275–

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “hap (n.1), sense 2,” December 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/6781165414.

These definitions taken together, the proverb equates a person with their lot in life. Hortensio's words suggest "A lucky man is destined to have good fortune" or "Good luck comes to a fortunate man". The tautology acknowledges that whoever wins Bianca will be fortunate. The phrase also expresses a wish for this good luck: the construction be his dole is subjunctive, expressing a desired state, as in Hallowed be thy Name. Further, since Hortensio and Gremio are rivals, the phrase conveys something like "May the best man win".

Shakespeare used this proverb in three other plays. In 1 Henry IV, Falstaff uses it to wish himself and his companions good luck:

Now my masters, happy man be his dole, say I. Every man to his business.

Henry IV Part 1, II.ii.79–80. Accessed at folger.edu 28 December 2023.

In Merry Wives, Slender uses it as a que sera, sera to express his resignation to his possible marriage to Anne despite neither's particularly desiring the union:

If it be my luck, so; if not, happy man be his dole.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.iv.65–66. Accessed at folger.edu 28 December 2023.

In The Winter's Tale, Leontes uses it to mean something like "Well, good for you!":

Why, happy man be's dole!

The Winter's Tale, I.ii.204. Accessed at folger.edu 28 December 2023.

These four different instances of the phrase's appearance all help us arrive at a fuller understanding of its meaning. It is simultaneously optimistic, fatalistic, and realistic, expressing a desire for good fortune, recognizing that this good fortune may not be in one's destiny, and signaling an acceptance of this answer the outcome.

5
  • 1
    These examples give a clear picture of the overall meaning of the phrase, in Shakespeare’s usage; but it still seems unclear how the phrase originally worked grammatically. If it was just Happy be his dole then, in parallel with Hallowed be thy name, it’s clear how it could mean May his dole be happy, i.e. May his outcome/fate be fortunate. But what’s the ‘man’ doing? If it’s the usual countable noun man, why doesn’t it need an article? Could it perhaps have originally come from a form of must or may (which it is in some dialects, but not usually in Shakespeare)? Dec 29, 2023 at 1:03
  • @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine h'm interesting, I didn't find the grammar all that impenetrable; but I've added a citation from Brewer in an attempt to make it clearer. Hopefully it's less foggy now! Thanks for the comment. P.S. any relation to Sheridan? Enquiring minds wanna know.
    – verbose
    Dec 29, 2023 at 2:39
  • Shakespeare is credited for a number of phrases that have become common. Yet despite appearing in 4 plays this one doesn't seem to have caught on and stood the test of time.
    – Barmar
    Dec 29, 2023 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Barmar: Shakespeare didn't coin the phrase. Google books finds it in Bulleins Bulwarke of Defence Against All Sicknesse, 1579, a decade before Shakespeare started writing plays: "And though the surgeon have great knowledge, yet one patient doth scant escape among an hundred, happy man be his dole." [spelling modernized].
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 31, 2023 at 14:51
  • 1
    @PeterShor Ah, that must be why it didn't stick, it didn't have the Bard's magic touch.
    – Barmar
    Dec 31, 2023 at 17:30
1

The meaning becomes clear once the key word (‘dole’) is defined.

In the Shakespearean context ‘dole’ means ‘an apportioned part’, ‘the apportioned part of one's fate or destiny’, or, in this case, ‘one's good fortune’. The ‘good fortune’ is the opportunity to win Bianca’s hand in marriage by whoever makes the greatest effort.

Dole in the various senses Shakespeare might have used it is defined here

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.