It was on a bitterly cold night and frosty morning, towards the
end of the winter of '97, that I was awakened by a tugging at my
shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his
eager, stooping face, and told me at a glance that something was
"Come, Watson, come!" he cried. "The game is afoot. Not a
word! Into your clothes and come!"
Ten minutes later we were both in a cab, and rattling through the
silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Road. The first faint
winter's dawn was beginning to appear, and we could dimly see
the occasional figure of an early workman as he passed us, blurred
and indistinct in the opalescent London reek. Holmes nestled in
silence into his heavy coat, and I was glad to do the same, for
the air was most bitter, and neither of us had broken our fast.
So begins Watson's crime story about murder most foul in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. The hare has started; the enterprise has begun and they are off in dogged pursuit of his archenemy, the villainous Professor Moriarty. Holmes goes on again to tell Watson in The Adventure of Bruce-Partington Plans that, I play the game for the game's own sake. Murky elements of intrigue are essential to any crime mystery and for modern wordsmiths, no plot is too far fetched to include literature's most recognizable sleuthing duo. Although it's more popularly known today as Sherlock Holmes's rallying cry to Dr. Watson when the clues of a mystery began to fall into place, the phrase "the game's afoot" is originally found, like so many phrases are, in Shakespeare.
It is the Year of Our Lord 1415 and the scene is set before the gates of Harfleur, risking it all in an effort to conquer a new land King Henry exhorts his troops into battle:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!"
(King Henry V, Act 3 Scene 1)
He soon discovers his words to be ineffective. The men are reluctant to rush forward and throw away their lives. Henry rises to the challenge and rings out loudly with their possibilities to compel them further:
... And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'
(King Henry V, Act 3 Scene 1)
The king compares his soldiers to coursing greyhounds for his sake, their country and Saint George. Employing imagery he associates the charge with all the desirable excitement of a sporting venture, the enemy has become quarry ready to be chased, ‘the game's afoot!' and he implies his confidence squarely upon his soldiers as the enthusiastic participants who can’t wait to start the fun.
Greyhounds were the first breed of dog written about in English literature. In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales his character, a fourteenth century monk spent a large sum of money to purchase them and in 1370 AD, Edmund de Langley's Mayster of Game described his idea of the perfect greyhound:
Greyhounds he hadde as swifte as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.
King Henry was known to be a great admirer of the breed and Langley presented a book about them to him as a gift. The name greyhound dates from the late middle ages possibly from from the old English "grei-hundr” meaning or high order of rank or "dog hunter." Or it may have been derived from "gre" or "gradus," meaning, "first rank," so that greyhound would mean "first rank among dogs." Perhaps Shakespeare knew this because he mentions them several times in his plays and this image would make sense to Shakepeares audiences.
Stories about Saint George today also date from the troubadours of the 14th century. His tale begins during the sixth century when Saint George rescues a hapless maiden by slaying a fearsome fire breathing dragon! Centureis later the saint's name was shouted as a battle cry by English knights who fought beneath his red-cross banner during the Hundred Years War making him the well known and venerated soldier saint in more modern times. His legend preceded him from Greek mythology and he is said to have appeared to the Christian army before the Battle of Antioch and alongside Lionheart, King Richard I, during his Crusade against the Saracens, serving as the source of great encouragement to the troops. Today he is particularly the patron saint of archers because that is to whom King Henry was addressing his speech. Since then his patronage has grown to include not only soldiers,but also cavalry and chivalry; of farmers and field workers, Boy Scouts and butchers; of horses, riders and saddlers; and of sufferers from leprosy, plague and syphilis.
Shakespeare's ideal king believed that there are times when even a decent person of peace and reason must don a spiked helmet, appeal to the spirit of Attila the Hun, and raise the Jolly Roger, especially when the other side is trampling on peace, reason, and justice. History relates that King Henry's greatest victory occurred at the Battle of Agincourt where approximately seven thousand Frenchmen were killed. This is the battle where he was reportedly inspired to raise the morale of his men with the battle cry, Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George! Even though King Henry's genius won him France by 1422 he had succumbed to dysentery.
The sporting simile appears once again during another war when the British for a time stood alone against Hitler while fighting for the liberation of France. During World War II it was Winston Churchill who requested Sir Laurence Olivier to film Henry V as a rallying point for England's national will and courage. Perhaps that's what inspired this verse that followed in its footsteps by the late Vincent Starrett during one combat summarizing the affection Sherlockians have for Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson:
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears--
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
The phrase boldly goes into the future! William Shakespeare's plays are among the finest pieces of literature ever produced in the English language. The themes and characters speak to all generations, transcending both time and culture. Gene Roddenberry was a Shakespeare fan too. He asked Christopher Plummer to play his Shakespeare quoting Klingon, General Chang. The movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country portrays the Federation and Klingons conspiring together to prevent a peace treaty. General Chang insists that Shakespeare is better understood when read in the original Klingon. During the final show down Chang breaks loose with a montage of no less than seven references from five different plays while he engages Kirk in combat. Strung together the direct quotes come from the plays and each has been redrafted to fit a 23rd century context. Combined in two references drawn from the famous speech by the Shakespear character of King Henry V at the battle of Harfleur. Chang quotes the opening line of the speech:
Once more to the breach, dear friends….. The game's afoot!.
In this new shade of Shakespeare the movie uses the image of "the undiscovered country" as an allegory for the future rather than death. But it hasn't strayed too far from Shakespeare’s original idea since change is the death of that which is familiar to us.
The Greyhound in the middle ages and Renaissance:
The History Behind the History Plays:
Saint George of England:
Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction: