Origins of “Neither Rhyme Nor Reason”

Some incorrectly credit [amazon_link id=”B00006FXDE” target=”_blank” ]William[/amazon_link] [amazon_link id=”0395754909″ target=”_blank” ]Shakespeare [/amazon_link](1564 – 1616) with the phrase, “neither rhyme nor reason.” However, the earliest use of this is seen in a poem that poet and essayist [amazon_link id=”0199227365″ target=”_blank” ]Edmund Spenser [/amazon_link](c. 1552 – 1599) wrote for [amazon_link id=”0743476441″ target=”_blank” ]Queen Elizabeth I[/amazon_link] (1533 – 1603.) The phrase does not stem from Shakespeare’s play, [amazon_link id=”074348486X” target=”_blank” ]As You Like It [/amazon_link](believed to have been written in 1599 or early 1600) appearing in the following exchange between Rosalind and [amazon_link id=”1904271227″ target=”_blank” ]Orlando[/amazon_link] in Act III, Scene II:

Rosalind: But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?
Orlando: Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much. (382 – 385)

After Queen Elizabeth I received the poem, [amazon_link id=”0140422072″ target=”_blank” ]The Faire Queene [/amazon_link]from Edmund Spenser, who wrote the poem in her honor, he was promised a gift from the Queen of £100. The Lord High Treasurer [amazon_link id=”0300118961″ target=”_blank” ]William Cecil[/amazon_link], however, considered the sum too much saying, “That much for a poem!?” After several months went by without receiving his gift, Spenser sent the Queen this quatrain:

I was promis’d on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
But from that time unto this season,
I had neither rhyme or reason.

Queen Elizabeth immediately ordered Cecil to send Spenser his due sum. The Faerie Queene found political favor with the queen and was consequently a success, to the extent that it became Spenser’s defining work. First published in 1590, the poem found such favor with the monarch that eventually Spenser was granted a pension for life amounting to £50 a year.**

Shakespeare is thought to have read every book that he could get his hands on. [amazon_link id=”1442641517″ target=”_blank” ]G. E. Bentley[/amazon_link] evaluated extant data for [amazon_link id=”1557830282″ target=”_blank” ]Elizabethan plays [/amazon_link]and extrapolated all sorts of information. For example, it seems that Shakespeare wrote specific parts for specific actors in house within his company, the [amazon_link id=”0712348654″ target=”_blank” ]Lord Chamberlain’s Men[/amazon_link]: male leads were written for Richard Burbage, John Heminges was the actor Shakespeare had in mind to portray [amazon_link id=”1177850834″ target=”_blank” ]Sir John Falstaff[/amazon_link]; and [amazon_link id=”1158510152″ target=”_blank” ]Will Kempe[/amazon_link] was the original Clown of Shakespeare’s company and was later replaced by [amazon_link id=”1146151500″ target=”_blank” ]Robert Armin[/amazon_link].

G. E. (Gerald Eades) Bentley (1901 – 1994) was an American academic and literary scholar, best remembered for his [amazon_link id=”B000L6IRRG” target=”_blank” ]The Jacobean and Caroline Stage[/amazon_link], published by Oxford University Press in seven volumes between 1941 and 1968. That work, modeled on the classic four-volume work [amazon_link id=”1177758776″ target=”_blank” ]The Elizabethan Stage[/amazon_link] by [amazon_link id=”B004IOIBLE” target=”_blank” ]Edmund Kerchever Chambers[/amazon_link], has itself become a standard and essential reference work on [amazon_link id=”0230602614″ target=”_blank” ]English Renaissance [/amazon_link]theatre.

In addition to his The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, Bentley wrote a wide range of works on Shakespeare and other figures of the English Renaissance. His essay “[amazon_link id=”B004IOUDRO” target=”_blank” ]Shakespeare and the Blackfriars Theatre[/amazon_link],” originally published in the inaugural issue of the Shakespeare Survey in 1948, has been widely reprinted. Bentley edited several works for modern editions, including [amazon_link id=”0743482824″ target=”_blank” ]Othello[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0061122416″ target=”_blank” ]The Alchemist[/amazon_link], and the 1577 text [amazon_link id=”0217064183″ target=”_blank” ]The Art of Angling[/amazon_link].

Bentley gives the modern scholar the pathways that Shakespeare took to get to some of his most famous lines. After reading Spenser’s poem sent to Queen Elizabeth, wouldn’t you agree that Spenser should receive credit for the idiom, “neither rhyme nor reason,” meaning that something is “the way that it is” for no logical reason?

**Spenser, Edmund (1984). Thomas P. Roche, Jr., with the assistance of C. Patrick O’Donnell Jr. ed. The Faerie Queene. Penguin Books. p. 11

N.B. According to the web site Measuring Worth, a service for calculating relative worth over time, £50 British Sterling in 1590 is equivalent to the buying power of £85,800 in 2009. Hence, Spenser certainly could have lived quite well from the Queen’s annual income alone.


Attention Students: to cite this web article in the current MLA-style, please use the example below.

Dixon, Catherine Jo. “Origins of ‘Neither Rhyme Nor Reason’.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 31 Jan 2011. Web. [today’s date].

Note: The citation entry on the “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” page must have a “hanging indent.” The second line should be indented 5 spaces.

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English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” which has current, credible information and reliable examples.


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