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Screw your courage to a sticking-place

Q From Christy Wopperer: The phrase screw your courage to a sticking-place, is said to be by Shakespeare, but would you know or can you describe what or where a sticking-place might be? Without knowing why, I just love this phrase, but cannot find any mention of sticking places in my searches online.

A The phrase in that form and sense does appear first in Macbeth, spoken to the thane of Glamis by his wife when encouraging him to murder Duncan. Macbeth is having a bad case of cold feet and is thinking of all the things that can go wrong. The RSC Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth’s line in the slightly modernised form, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place / And we’ll not fail”. Today we’re much more likely to talk simply about screwing up our courage, another form of the same expression.

The idea is of a place where something stops and holds fast. If Macbeth does this, he won’t change his mind but stay with his previous decision to act against King Duncan. However, nobody is certain what the sticking-place is — as so often, Shakespeare omitted to tell us what he meant and sticking-place appears in English only in reference to this line.

The Clarendon Shakespeare, published in Oxford in 1869, suggested it refers to “some engine or mechanical contrivance”. In a note in another Shakespeare play in the same series, Troilus and Cressida, the editors argue that it had something to do with “screwing up the chords of string instruments to their proper degree of tension”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, published in 1911, accepts this as the correct answer.

A writer in Notes and Queries in December 1869 instead suggested the image of a contemporary soldier, “with his crossbow planted at an angle against the ground, screwing its cord by means of a kind of windlass to ‘the sticking-place,’ or catch, by which it will be held at furthest stretch.” This has also been put forward by other writers and it’s accepted by most modern editors of the play. It’s supported by a line later on in the scene: “I am settled, and bend up / Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat”, where by “bend up” it’s accepted Macbeth is referring to the stringing of a longbow. A martial image would make sense when discussing a murder.

As things stand, however, we’ve no way of deciding for certain which allusion, if either, is what Shakespeare had in mind.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Mar. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 March 2009.