Wordy Wednesday – “Fair play”

Traditional dueling salutes – because it’s only fair to stab somebody to death if you’ve both done a traditional dance first and agreed not to hide behind trees during the fight.

Philip the Bastard: According to the fair play of the world,
Let me have audience; I am sent to speak:
My holy lord of Milan, from the king
I come, to learn how you have dealt for him[…]
King John (V.ii.2400-5)


Troilus: Brother, you have a vice of mercy in you,
Which better fits a lion than a man.
Hector: What vice is that, good Troilus? chide me for it.
Troilus: When many times the captive Grecian falls,
Even in the fan and wind of your fair sword,
You bid them rise, and live.
Hector: O,’tis fair play.
Troilus: Fool’s play, by heaven, Hector.
Hector: How now! how now!
Troilus and Cressida (V.iii.3318-3326)


Miranda: Sweet lord, you play me false.
Ferdinand: No, my dear’st love,
I would not for the world.
Miranda: Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it, fair play.
The Tempest (V.i.2218-22)


“Fair play”, Shakespeare’s surprisingly complex little statement of how the world ought to work – and how it often doesn’t – is only two words long, but those two words hold radically different meanings on which he builds beautifully subtle little puns on humans’ capacity to celebrate both foolish virtue and clever dishonesty. Most famously used in The Tempest (the subject of our very own 2013 Shakespeare Challenge – totally click that and read ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING – it has become a cornerstone of our popular culture throughout the West.

‘Fair’ derives from the Old Norse fagr, which means ‘beautiful’, but also from the Old Gothic fagrs, which means ‘fitting’ – that ‘g’ sounds like a ‘y’ in both languages. ‘Play’, meanwhile, comes from the Old English plegian – which means a ton of things, including ‘to move rapidly / to occupy or busy oneself / to exercise / to frolic / to make sport of / to mock / to perform music.’ It also, again, comes from the Old Saxon plegan, which means ‘to take care of / to pledge’. It’s like the words mean everything at once.

Most importantly, however, the words suggest that to be true, to be honourable, is to be beautiful or appealing. Philip’s offer to the French is an elegant, bloodless peace rather than war, and Miranda sees the courage to fight one’s political corner for “a score of kingdoms” is both ‘fair’ (justified) and, we gather, ‘fair’ – an attractively confident move. (As a side note, in some European English dialects “Fair play!” or “Fair play to you!” means “Well done!” – simply recognizing that a powerful enough move is beautiful for that reason alone.)

At the same time, however, ‘fair play’ can also be (please pardon the sports/Macbeth pun) a ‘foul’ – Ferdinand being ‘fair’ to himself means ‘speaking false’ to his new fiancée Miranda. Troilus complains that, in the Trojan War to save their homeland, ‘fair play’ to their foemen is ‘Fool’s play’. Philip’s delaying his attack to propose a ‘fair’ peace leads to a general massacre on both sides, due to an enemy who interprets his kindness as weakness. Then his King gets treacherously poisoned by a monk. Ah, the obscure History Plays.

Futhermore, in all three works, the use of ‘fair play’ comes in Act 5. All these lines come near the end of the ‘play’ – a further pun! – and involve the final narrative devices that wrap up their plotlines. To seamlessly heal the breach between nobles in The Tempest by the Ferdinand/Miranda marriage is a ‘fair’ resolution (both just and attractively elegant) to the play’s problems; Troilus and Hector are about to face the sort of ‘fair’ divine justice that destroys Troy for Helen’s seduction from her Greek husband; Philip makes a ‘fair play’ offer to end the war early, and France’s foolhardy rejection leads to their horrible defeat. (In Shakespeare plays, France being humiliated is always, always a very happy ending.)

In our time, which is a bit short on entirely virtuous wars and unambiguously handsome princes, the idea of fair play is most often applied to sporting events or other such formal contests. A game or challenge marked by ‘fair play’ is one in which all participants acknowledge that winning or advantage isn’t everything – that there are rules and standards of behavior they should follow at all times. This doesn’t just mean ‘not cheating’, but respecting the opponent, refusing to abuse their weaknesses unfairly, and preserving a good and positive attitude towards the opposition and the competition itself, win or lose.

Thus, again, the double meaning of ‘fair’; impartial justice is important, but so is the act of being seen to desire and appreciate such justice more than one’s own glory. One must be ‘fair’ in the sense that one must do good, but also in that one must be seen as ‘fair’, admirable and blameless, the sort of person who wouldn’t even consider skulduggery.

Similarly, valid concerns with ‘fair play’ largely concentrate on competitive sports – an enjoyable but largely pointless social distraction. One thus ‘plays’, but also makes a ‘pledge’ – from the word’s other source – to follow an ironclad set of rules. One who ‘plays’ innocently frolics, but is also a ‘player’ (a word which means both ‘dishonest lover’ and ‘powerful insider’). When one is conned out of some advantage, one is said to have been ‘played’.

Our obsession with ‘fair play’ also points to a sadder irony. We feel the need to demand and celebrate fair play because, in an age of blood doping and match fixing, of election fraud and personal perjury, it seems so hard to find – we are anxious about how much it is ever really there. It was Keats that claimed, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, that “”Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Much like gold or diamonds, perhaps the beauty of truth comes from its rarity as a pure or an uncomplicated item, a White Knight in a world whose shades are ever more gray.

Perhaps that’s also part of Shakespeare’s beauty – his plays strenuously argue for grand moral sentiments and ‘fair plays’ (beautiful dramatic works) have also internally maintained a sense of ‘fair play’. Cheaters rarely prosper in Shakespeare, and even in the Tragedies villains tend to get their just desserts. He’s rarely unrealistic about how likely or satisfying fair play is as a solution, but always compassionate about the comforts of imagining a world where the ‘quality of mercy’, of forgiveness, or of forebearance really is ‘not strained’.

One comment

  1. ‘Yes the phrase ‘Fair play to you’ is indeed a commonly used idiomatic expression in Ireland to congratulate someone. As an avid Irish sports fan (some might say crazy!!), I’d have to disagree with competitive sports being a pointless distraction though 😉 Along with the unifying power sport wields in Ireland, the ‘fair play’ of our sportsmen & women, our rugby players in particular, create very positive role models for the country’s youth’.

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