Leading apes in hell
In these so-called enlightened days the decision to remain unmarried and/or not to have children is what is known as a lifestyle decision and rarely excites much in the way of comment. Turn the clock back a few centuries and a woman who chose a life of celibacy was contravening God’s command, as documented several times in the book of Genesis, to “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it”. There was a special fate reserved for these unfortunate women upon their death, to lead apes in hell.
The phrase first appeared in print in the poet George Gascoigne’s A Hundred Sundrie Flowers, published in 1573. Lady Pergo laments, “I am afraide my marriage will be marred, and I may goe lead Apes in hell”. Five years later John Lyly, in his didactic romance entitled The Anatomy of Wyt, has Ferardo advising his daughter, Lucilla, thus; “I had rather thou shouldest leade a lyfe to thine owne lykeinge in earthe, then to thy greate torments leade Apes in Hell”. Somewhat enamoured by this image, Lyly then has Lucilla say to Euphues, “I will eyther leade a Uirgins lyfe in earth (though I leade Apes in hell) or els follow thee rather then thy giftes”.
It has been suggested that the concept of a spinster being condemned to leading apes in hell after her death originated during the Reformation in an attempt to dissuade women from lamenting the loss of a contemplative life in a nunnery and to do their duty as women and have children. There is no specific evidence that this is so, save that the phrase, in print at least, appears post-Reformation. Its use in the The London Prodigall, written anonymously in 1605, suggests that it had proverbial status; “but tis and old prouerbe, and you know it well,/ that women dying maides, lead apes in hell”. This may suggest that it predates the Reformation.
Whatever the case, Shakespeare was enamoured with the concept, using it twice, once in The Taming of the Shrew from 1591, in which Katherina chides her father for allowing her younger sister to marry before her; “I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day/ and for your loue to her, leade Apes in hell”. In Much Ado about Nothing from 1600 Beatrice tells her uncle she will not marry; “I am not for him, therefore I will euen take sixpence in earnest of the Berrord, and leade his apes into hell”.
Shakespeare may well have been enamoured by the phrase because it gave him the opportunity for a double entendre. To lead in Tudor times was a term used to describe the act of sexual intercourse. A woman who declined to have sexual intercourse with a man whilst alive was condemning herself to have an ape as her partner in her afterlife. You can imagine the audience guffawing at the prospect.
The phrase soon dropped out of fashion, perhaps the PR campaign to dissuade women from following the contemplative life of a nun had been successful, but it still raised its ugly head on occasion. A Valentine card from the 1850s contained these heartless verses; “you would like to wear them dearly,/ and in faith, you mean to try,/ but, old girl, I’ll tell you truly,/ your attempt is ALL MY EYE./ It will not fit, my downy one,/ so fairly I would tell,/ you had best but take the duty,/ of leading APES IN HELL”.
We have to assume that the hapless recipient would have understood the allusion even if today it would have left us scratching our heads.