44 votes

How did Shakespeare get away with staging witchcraft in his plays such as Othello, Macbeth, or The Tempest?

The public saw the plays were fiction, perhaps even a warning against witchcraft, and the magic in them is divorced of religious overtones. It is noteworthy that the two Shakespeare plays which deal ...
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43 votes
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Could you actually go around the world in 80 days?

Circumnavigation was nothing new. Speedy circumnavigation was new, but not unheard of, and Around the World wasn't positing anything outlandish or even vaguely sci-fi. It's a story celebrating what ...
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39 votes

Why would one of Germany's leading publishers publish a novel by Jewish writer Stefan Zweig in 1939?

Samuel Fischer, who founded the S. Fischer Verlag in 1886 was also Jewish. After his death in 1934, his son-in-law Gottfried Bermann Fischer took over management of the publishing house, but in 1936 ...
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36 votes
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Was Odysseus considered unfaithful to his wife in the Odyssey?

No. Introduction To begin with, the question Has Odysseus been unfaithful to his wife? would not make sense to the people of ancient Greece. Such a question presupposes that the Greeks had a ...
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33 votes

Could you actually go around the world in 80 days?

It was possible, but not easy. The difficulty of the task accounts for the substantial amount of the bet: £20,000 in 1873 is worth about £2,000,000 or more than US $2.5 million today. William ...
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27 votes
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Why couldn't Mr Dobbins become a doctor in "Tom Sawyer"?

Teachers didn't require any training or licensure at this time. The U.S. Department of Education has published a brief paper on the history of teaching in the U.S. here. Since Tom Sawyer takes place ...
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26 votes
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"My father declared he should invent a slip button"

The Kentucky Age for 10th February 1857 contains a short story which opens as follows: A celebrated wit once said he had found out a patent “slip button,” so that when a bore laid hold of him, and ...
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25 votes
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Was it common that the bridges of ditches or creeks had guarding gates in 1924?

Some geographical context might be helpful. The scene of the crime is the North Kent Marshes: “A shocking tragedy has come to light in a meadow about a mile from Dartford. About two o’clock this ...
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25 votes

Why is a "cucumber sandwich" specifically used as what English faith has "only just enough teeth to get through"?

Even though cucumber sandwiches were at one point associated with poshness, as Rand al'Thor writes, I don't think this is the association on which the passage is based. Nothing in the passage ...
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22 votes
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How much of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is based on real events?

Ernest Hemingway traveled to Madrid in March of 1937 to observe the Spanish Civil war firsthand. He reported on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In March 1937, he traveled to ...
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20 votes
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What was a "prince" in Dostoevsky's times, i.e. mid-late 19th century?

Something like a duke, and the title wasn't all that special. The English word "prince" is translated from the Russian "knyaz (князь)", which could be used either to denote a ...
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18 votes

Chilli peppers in fifteenth-century India?

This is an error introduced by the translator. The original Portuguese text says: Sabei que estais na Índia, onde se estende Diverso povo, rico e prosperado De ouro luzente e fina pedraria, Cheiro ...
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18 votes
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How was the free-born Englishman prevented from taking his ease in his inn in 1922?

Quoting Wikipedia After the outbreak of World War I the Defence of the Realm Act was passed by Parliament in 1914. One section of the Act concerned the hours pubs could sell alcohol, as it was ...
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17 votes
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What did the men use to destroy Sandleford Warren?

Is this some established rabbit-hunting technique? Yes: it's called rabbit warren fumigation. I found this by searching the internet for gas canisters rabbit warren, since I'd always assumed the "...
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17 votes

Was Philip Larkin factually correct when he implied that in 1955 the streets in Ireland were "end-on to hills" more often than those in England?

I don’t believe the poem is making any such claim. Larkin lived in Belfast, specifically on Elmwood Avenue. This street lies between Lisburn Road and Malone Road. All of the streets between these two ...
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15 votes
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Was Afghanistan considered tropical or was Holmes wrong?

Don't interpret "the tropics" with such scientific precision. You originally posted this question on the Earth Sciences site, and you seem to have been thinking of this quote with a literal (I'd even ...
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15 votes
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What does Victor Hugo mean by "the red ant heaps of Toulon"?

By “the red ant heaps of Toulon”, Hugo means the Bagne de Toulon, a notorious prison where the convicts wore red jackets and red caps. This is the prison where Jean Valjean serves nineteen years for ...
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14 votes
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What was a "ward in chancery"?

It means a minor under the guardianship of the Court of Chancery. This was a real concept in those days - indeed it still is, but such children are nowadays more often referred to as "wards of ...
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14 votes
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Is there an equivalent to Orientalism in Eastern scholarship of the West?

The counterpart to the term "orientalism" is, rather unsurprisingly, occidentalism, which Wikipedia defines as follows: Occidentalism refers to and identifies representations of the Western ...
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13 votes
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Why do peasants in 19th century Russian literature often have Greek names?

Firstly, why there are Greek names in Russia. Russia, being a Christian Orthodox country, had strong historical and cultural connections with Greece. So, many Russian names are of Greek origin. Most ...
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13 votes

What would it mean for a 19th-century German soldier to "wear the cross"?

The “war of seventy” refers to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and this is confirmed by the mention of Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the North German Confederation at the outbreak of the war, ...
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12 votes

Why is Christopher Marlowe considered an atheist?

TLDR: 1 - Marlow was not an atheist in the modern sense. 2- Dr Faustus is not as clearly religious as it first appears Let's start by pointing out that "atheism" doesn't necessarily stop an ...
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11 votes
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Why is "Oranges and Lemons" supposed to describe child sacrifice?

TL;DR: There is no hidden meaning in ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Tommy Thumb’s Song Book The problem with all the theories about a hidden meaning in ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is that the earliest printed ...
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11 votes
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Why does Shelby Foote use the phrase "airline miles" in The Civil War: a Narrative?

This is the original sense of the word airline. Now obsolete, it survived in works on surveying and military history into the 1960s. The OED says: airline, n. 1. a. Chiefly U.S. A direct line through ...
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11 votes
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The Brothers Karamazov - When was Russia saved before?

What exactly is he referring to? He's most probably referring to the events in Russian history when Russia was on a brink of ceasing to exist as a state. There were a number of grave moments ...
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11 votes
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Why is a "cucumber sandwich" specifically used as what English faith has "only just enough teeth to get through"?

Cucumber sandwiches, specifically, are a stereotypical part of English "posh" culture, along with afternoon tea and "More tea, vicar?" From Wikipedia: Cucumber sandwiches formed ...
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10 votes
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Was it normal to mix up the word "lady" with a man in Canada in 1894?

The title of the question isn't applicable to the provided example, because as Hosek and shoover point out in their answers, Mr. Barr is never referring to Mr. Bartlett as a "lady" in the ...
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  • 216
10 votes
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Why is the country conjuror referred to as a "white wizard"?

The term "white wizard" is used in the context of the white magic / black magic distinction. Black magic is malevolent, used for harmful or evil purposes; white magic is benevolent, used for ...
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10 votes
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Origin and significance of E-I-E-I-O in the Old MacDonald song

As with any folk song, the origins of the lyrics can be a bit murky, but given transcriptions collected by folklorists in the early part of the twentieth century of this or related songs, we see that ...
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9 votes
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What was "standard shift" in the 1920's?

Most likely this refers to the number of gears. The phrase "standard shift" nowadays refers to the type of transmission: manual transmission or automatic transmission according to which is considered ...
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