It all began with the happy go lucky bachelor listed in Medieval registers simply as solutes which is Latin for “loose or unchained,’ footloose and unfettered with nary a romantic commitment. When we are the apple of someone’s eye, wear our heart on our sleeve, or better yet - fancy-free, we are speaking the common language gifted to us by William Shakespeare. This fascinating and witty upstart of an entrepreneur who has been called world’s greatest playwright endures and continues to cruise along through time. One can easily imagine sitting upon the banks of the river watching the ships and liken them to the animations of a sail. Common to most sailing vessels at the lower edge of the mainsail, known as the foot, was lashed to a boom to keep it stretched and properly shaped. Sometimes, most notably the barges that sailed the London River, did not possess a boom leaving the sail to hang loose along the foot. Loose-footed sails, as they came to be called were more difficult to control having a mind of their own. It is from this nautical dance that the phrase “footloose and fancy free” is believed to have come.
To be or not to be footloose and fancy-free implies that one is not in love or married. An adjective meaning; unattached without any ties or commitments, the term originates from Act I, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s festive comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fancy is related to fanciful and fancy-free has descended from fantasy. Heart-whole and carefree would be synonyms for this compound cliché that maintains a sense of abandon. Abandon, that's a funny way of saying it, because it really takes a great deal of control to maintain the level of energy and zaniness of being truly fancy free.
To put this in a historical context A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by the Bard around 1595. It’s set in the Athenian forest and dreams are the theme. Behind the scenes is a running commentary by him on the English world. Midsummer Eve is the English holiday celebrating the night of the summer solstice on June 23rd. Telling tales of the supernatural about fairies and witchcraft men and women would light evening bonfires and spend the night out. Shakespeare also added the “rite of May” or maying another traditional holiday of the English that occurred on the first night in May. Singing and dancing and perhaps more amorous pursuits occurred in the woods outside of town among the men and women. Shakespeare combines Halloween with Puck and all the fairies with a big rave. Quite a new idea and rather startling for the era the play was written. Many English Puritans objected to these traditions labeling them as pagan practices giving way to mischief and temptation. Shakepeare takes all of his midsummer madness and adds a happy ending to suggest a defense against the harsh critics by regarding the festivities as benign and even desirable.
Some historians maintain that Shakespeare may have prepared the fanciful play as a performance as part of the wedding celebrations for a young nobleman. Critics counter the theory with disbelief:
“If this is true, A Midsummer Night’s Eve presents an astonishingly complex set of self-referential scenes. When Shakespeare’s company performed Act V, for instance, the noble men and women in the first audience of the play would be watching other noble men and women (Hippolyta, Theseus, Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander) doing on stage exactly what they themselves were doing in real life: watching a play meant to entertain them at a wedding.
Historians though support their theory by telling one of the guests at the nobleman’s wedding, was Queen Elizabeth I of England
and reveal that the play contains a number of layered references to her. “Both Hippolyta and Titania embody certain aspects of Elizabeth’s royal mystique. Hippolyta, as the beautiful “Amazon Queen,” recalls Elizabeth’s reputation for military prowess, as well as her proud refusal to take a husband. “ Scholars add that the concept of a “marriage” between Hippolyta
was intended to denote the League of Amity
signed between Elizabeth of England and the King of France close to the time that the play was written. Titania, Queen of Fairies and Elizabeth also have many traits in common. Shakespeare created Titania
as a great patroness of arts, music, and dancing, as Elizabeth so famously tried to be. Even more so is the notion about a “Fairy Queen”; an unmistakable reference to another popular epic of the period, the Faerie Queen
by Edmund Spenser’s written as a sophisticated celebration of Elizabeth and her court.
In A Midsummer Night’s Eve Puck is Oberon’s henchman who loves a good mischief and pranks. When Puck is given a task by his master as part of a plot for revenge on Titania: find a flower that can make love-juice. The begrudging King of the Fairies applies the juice to Titanias eyes thinking ‘If I can’t have her then only some buffoon can. Sometimes titled Love In Idleness Oberon fancies to Puck:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth
Cupid, all arm'd; a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal, throned by the west,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon;
And the imperial vot'ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it Love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flow'r, the herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
In the end Oberon can’t endure watching his beloved Titania adore the mule-headed Bottom for very long, and undoes his spell almost at once. Like Theseus and Hippolyta, the king and queen of Fairyland end the play replacing strife with love.
Shakespeare’s clearly means to imply the royal member of his first audience in his play when Oberon gives an account of the fateful flower, ”love-in-idleness,” that will produce the magic juice to Puck. One night in the woods, according to the Fairy King, Cupid, “all armed,” took aim at a “fair vestal, thronèd by the west.” His arrow missed, and pierced the flower instead, while “th’imperial vot’ress passèd on, / In maiden meditation, fancy-free.” This is quite an elaborate compliment to the Virgin Queen, with vestal meaning “virgin” in this little prophetic poesy of prose. Not only had she recently managed to escape a plotted assassination in 1594, Cupid’s arrow would miss Elizabeth her entire life, she died proudly unmarried and without children. It is in this sense of the phrase that fancy-free means untouched by love. When Shakespeare wrote the particular passage he was intended it not only as praise for Elizabeth and her famous virginity, but also served as a festive celebration of her recent miraculous escape from real physical harm.
Elizabeth encouraged a dual perception of herself for her subjects. Images that presented her as an eternal virgin, Elizabeth was savvy enough to also express her willingness to marry for her country. By using her marriageability as a political tool she ensured a balance of power between the Protestant and Catholic nations in Europe. Frances A. Yates alludes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a key speech explaining her policy and the usefulness of Elizabeth’s marriageability:
The virginity of the queen was used as a powerful political weapon all through her reign. Many foreign potentates hoped to win her hand. She coquetted with them, played them off against one another, and never married. Whatever the love shafts aimed at her, the imperial votaress passed on, in maiden meditation, fancy free.
Oberon’s vision of Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
became not only part of the mythological foundation of the play but also one that identified Elizabeth in symbols and emblems radiating many meanings and creating a subtle yet long enduring focus upon her reign.
Many poets and playwrights have since expanded on Shakespeare’s flawless image of his beloved Queen. A.E. Housman writes in his famous work A Shropshire Lad about a wise man admonishment when he was twenty one to “Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.” Ralph Waldo Emerson composed his ode
Give All To Love and terminates the poem with a direct allusion to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy-free;
Nor thou detain her vesture's hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
From her summer diadem.
Leonard Bernstein wrote a ballet called Fancy-free in the mid nineteen forties and went on to develop it into the award winning musical and Broadway hit On The Town
.You might also know him from his later adaptation another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet
to a New York gang warfare setting as the highly successful West Side Story
(1957). Gilbert and Sullivan
tip their hats to the Bard in their opera Princess Ida
and Mistress Lalage, a character taken from Horace
, (65-8 B.C.) the famous Roman Satirist and poet who penned "In praise of Lalage
". In their opera she plays one of the poet's mistresses and tells that he will remained unharmed can when he walks through the woods thinking of her:
"In Sabine woods, and fancy-free
A wolf observed my wandering tread;
Unarmed, I sang of Lalage;
He saw, and fled".
also dances cheek to cheek
on the silver screen in the comedy and modern musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost
yet another Shakespearean play.
It’s hard to imagine the richness of such a laissez-faire word that began it voyage cast adrift in the wonderfully dense language that Elizabethan writers had at their disposal and how it has washed down through the centuries as flotsam and jetsam along a rich seaway embedded in many cultures.
The Phrase Finder:
Princess Ida Notes: