“He shall charge you, and discharge you, with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer, come off and on swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.”
Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV part 2, Act III, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare
Better brains that yours or mine have failed to identify what Falstaff meant by “brewer’s bucket”. It’s to do with carrying liquids, certainly, but unrelated to pails. And actually, you’ve probably seen illustrations of a brewer’s bucket, thought it would not have been called that in the captions. What is more, you’ve probably used the word “bucket” in the sense intended by Shakespeare, though I doubt you or anyone who heard you realised that.
The passage mentioning the brewer’s bucket occurs in a scene where Falstaff and his gang are raising levies among the Gloucestershire peasantry for the king’s army to fight against the rebellious Earl of Northumberland. The two likeliest-looking recruits, big sturdy men called Peter Bullcalf and Ralph Mouldy, bribe Bardolph, Falstaff’s deputy, with 40 shillings each and are allowed to sneak away home (Bardolph, of course, tells Sir John he was only given £3 to let them go) and Falstaff insists the three weeds he has left, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart and Francis Feeble, will make cracking soldiers.
Shadow, he says, is so thin the enemy gunners will not be able to hit him, Feeble will be suitably speedy in any necessary retreat, while Wart will “charge and discharge” (terms used by gunners – see page 39 of The Art of Gunnery by Nathanial Nye, published 1637) using the quick movements of a pewtersmith planishing the surface of whatever piece he is making, and “come off and on” (which look like swordfighting terms, as in “come on guard”) swifter than – well, what, exactly?
Samuel Johnson explained this passage in his annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1765 as meaning “swifter than he that carries beer from the vat to the barrel in buckets hung upon a gibbet or beam crossing his shoulders”. Earlier the same year, Johnson had become friends with Henry Thrale, owner of the big Anchor brewery in Southwark, one of London’s leading porter brewers, and Thrale’s wife Hester. Readers who knew this may have believed Johnson had seen such a thing at the brewery. However, the Irish politician and literary scholar John Monck Mason (1726-1809), in Comments on the several Editions of Shakespeare’s Plays, published in 1807, gave the dictionary writer a kicking for this interpretation, complaining: “I do not think Johnson’s explanation of this passage just. The carrying beer from the vat to the barrel must be a matter that requires more labour than swiftness. Falstaff seems to mean “swifter than he that puts the buckets on the gibbet”, for as the buckets at each end of the gibbet must be put on at the same instant it necessarily requires a quick motion.”
Two centuries on, SparkNotes, the US-based study guide website familiar to tens of millions under the age of 30, explains the passage in its “No Fear Shakespeare” section in a similar manner, saying that Shakespeare meant Wart could “advance and regroup faster than a brewer’s delivery pail can be refilled.” But like Johnson and Mason, SparkNotes is making a fundamental error: because “bucket” in this passage does not mean “vessel”. And Johnson and Mason made another mistake as well: for not only were the buckets not buckets, they weren’t hanging from a gibbet.
The only Shakespeare commentator to get it right, or mostly right, seems to have been Sir Sidney Lee, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, in his Complete Works of Shakespeare of 1906. Lee pointed out that “bucket” here is clearly the separate word meaning “beam or yoke on which things may be hung or carried”, from the Old French “buquet”, meaning “trébuchet, balance”. “Gibbets” means “hangs”, Lee says, and “The reference is to the practice of hauling about barrels of beer by attaching them to chains depending from a beam borne on the shoulders of the brewers’ men,” so that the passage means “swifter than he that hangs barrels on the yoke of the brewer’s men.” “The attribution of swiftness to this method of haulage is ironical,” Lee says.
Multiple illustrations over several centuries show brewery workers carrying around casks suspended by chains from a yoke they support on their shoulders: it looks to have been a common method of transporting full casks. The yoke is the bucket. Confusingly, while gibbet can mean a pole from which something is hung (which is what Johnson and Mason thought the word signified in the passage from Henry IV), here it looks to mean the chains and hooks that attach the cask to the bucket. The records of the city of Aberdeen in 1477 mention “A brewyne fat, a hemmyr stand, a bukket, and a gybbate that it hang by.” In Scotland, where the “gibbet or swee” was the name given to the chimney-crane that supported a pot over the kitchen fire, which was “attached to [the swee] by a strong double hook called the gibbet-gab”, exactly that double hook on a chain you can see hanging from the bucket on all those pictures of draymen.
(Small aside: I don’t think, without internet access or a copy of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue in your library you would have any chance of guessing what a “hemmyr stand” was. “Stand” is an old Scots word for a vessel or, in this case, a cask. “Hemmyr” is the old Scots for the port and city of Hamburg. So a “hemmyr stand” was a Hamburg barrel, a specific size of cask holding, depending when and where you were, 14 [Scots] gallons [in 1489] or 12 [Scots] gallons [in Aberdeen in 1511]. A Scots gallon was equal to six and two thirds Imperial pints, so 14 gallons Scots was 11 2/3rds Imperial gallons.)
You will have spotted, I hope, that Lee looks to be in error with the claim that “‘Gibbets’ means ‘hangs’.” “Gibbets on” should more properly, I suggest, be “gibbets-on”, with “to gibbet-on” meaning “to attach something to a bucket or yoke with hooks on a chain” – just like the chap at the rear is doing in the illustration of the brewer’s bucket in use in Amsterdam.
So why did Shakespeare use the act of gibbetting-on a brewer’s bucket as a metaphor for speed (or, if Falstaff was being ironic, for slowness)? If my maths is up to it, a full wooden barrel weights about four hundredweight, or 200 kilos. Even two men carrying the bucket on their shoulders would not be nipping about speedily. All suggestions for what Stratford Willy actually meant gratefully considered.
Finally, “bucket” meaning “yoke or beam” does have one common modern usage, albeit metaphorical and with no one using it aware of its origins. The OED quotes a newspaper from 1888 as saying:
“The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify ‘to die’.”