Vows, Oaths and Swears

Why does ‘Zounds rhyme with wounds? What is pox? Why do Elizabethan characters say Ud instead of God?

Like a promise, an oath or vow was used to commit oneself to do something, or affirm that something was true, but was considered significantly stronger and more binding than a simple promise. In particular, an oath or vow made directly to Heaven or God was seen as inviolable. A character’s willingness to break a vow, or to tempt another to break a vow, was a good measure of the moral code of the character.

A particularly important vow was the promise to marry. When a man and woman swore to marry each other, especially in front of witnesses, their vows were considered unseverable, with serious repercussions returning on those who flippantly broke them.

While the modern reader is familiar with the concept of “swearing on a Bible”, Elizabethan characters could swear on body parts, on attributes of God (including body parts), or on anything else they wanted to. So, in John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, Bianca swears “by these dishevelled hairs, these wretched tears”, that she loves Fernando.

Swearing can also be used, just as it is in modern English, as a discourse marker, a shorthand way to express an emotion. In modern English, for example, it is common during conversations for speakers to pepper their sentences with utterances ranging from the mild “shoot” or “darn it” to the stronger “God da** it!” Four hundred years ago, a dramatist’s characters might similarly season their language with more creative swears, such as “by God’s lid” (ie. eyelid), “God’s my life”, and “by God’s mother”, to give some random examples from Shakespeare’s works.

In 1605, however, an Act was passed banning the use of the name of God or Jesus on stage in a “jesting or profane” manner; as a result, dramatists introduced oaths which implied, without stating, God’s name being taken in vain; thus, in Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, we see ‘sfoot standing in for “by God’s foot” and Ud’s me, meaning “my God”. In Shakespeare, we find ’slid for “by God’s (eye) lid”, and ’zounds for “God’s wounds”. These oaths will come across as quite odd-sounding, but very colorful. David and Ben Crystal treat the topic at length on pages 435-9 in their indispensable dictionary Shakespeare’s Words.

A particularly common oath is Marry, a strong bit of language invoking the mother of Jesus.

Finally, we mention that class of swearing involving imprecations, an imprecation being a wish for a specific curse to be visited upon the speaker’s target. The classic Elizabethan imprecation is “a pox upon it”, expressing a desire for the plague or venereal disease to descend on someone or something. To “beshrew” someone or something is also common, bringing down a more general curse on the recipient.

The variety of forms that vows, oaths, and swearing can take in the old literature is quite astounding, and they provide yet another layer of meaning, depth of feeling and general colorfulness to the language of the plays.