Shakespeare's "from whose bourn no traveller returns."???

Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 01:24 am
Ok this is going to be a bit odd but the main question is solely the english of it lol.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet Act III I believe.

"to that Undescovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller returns."

My question is how is bourn being used?

There are two derivatives of bourn where today they are both apart of English but in the 1500s I'm not so sure.

Bourn from old French means "Limit or boundary" which is generally the attributed to the meaning of bourn in Shakespear's quote.

However, the old English meaning, which is what Shakespeare's audience would have understood, means "river".

So which is his actual meaning?
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 01:43 am
Hmm - I would have seen it as meaning realm, as in the 3rd meaning listed below:

Pronunciation: (bôrn, bOrn, boorn), [key]
?n. Archaic.
1. a bound; limit.
2. destination; goal.
3. realm; domain.

although my complete Shakespeare defines it as "confine, region".

Hang on, I shall see if I can hunt up a more authoritative edition.
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 01:45 am
River would have been a very odd definition, I would have thought, unless Shakespeare was thinking of the Styx... or of a river of time.

There would be no problem with there being several associations in the audience's mind for the word.
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 01:52 am
Sorry! I cannot find my scholarly version of Hamlet - I am sure someone else will come along, and I have asked your question of a couple of people who may well know in a scholarly way, though their answer may take some time to come.
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 02:13 am
Very excellent, I need as much info about this as possible. Because the oddity of the meaning of "bourne" had crossed my mind.

I don't see how any meaning BUT river, can be the meaning shakespeare meant because of the fact that Bourn meaning boundry or "realm" was from old french and would not really have dessiminated into England that early on.

So I recently however found a different link.

Freemasonry, which is where I know the word from.

"Ever remembering that we are travelling upon that level of time, from whose bourn no traveler returns."

Now what I found odd was one of the primary possibilities of who really wrote Shakespeare, was also a prominent Freemason, something Shakespeare was not.

Now whether or not Shakespeare wrote it or not is not the actual question, because he could have known Freemasons or such or not.

But I'm beginning to wonder, which came first?

Shakespeare's quote, or the quote from Freemasonry.

Freemasonry is by far older for sure but not all its writing is necissarilly, at least not proven yet because Masonry goes back beyond the 1500s, where no real records are kept.


In that quote, "bourn" means river, the "river of time" which is old english.

So, it serves a possibility that Shakespeare or if Bacon did write it, himself, picked up the "from whose bourn no traveller returns" from Masonry.

That to me seems a logical possibility because the river definition is not french, and therefore would have likely been used, and it being oddly placed, means maybe its source is external, not originally intended for the play.

It also though seems that Masonry could have picked it out of Shakespeare, writing it down officially in 1717, which is a general consensus.

So if I could figure out exactly what "Bourn" the english peoples would understand in the Elizebethan time period, that would be a great step forward.

If the english would not understand "Bourn" in any other context than "river" in the late 1500s and mid 1600s, then we know that Shakespeare must have been using it to mean "river."

Which I find illogical for such a man as he to use, and so it would have already been a phrase, understood to some.

The only other place in history I know of this phrase is from Masonry.

So which came first I feel depends on what is possible.

Should Old French have already leaked a few words into english at that time, so that people at that time would understand the word to fit to "Undiscovered Country" then more likely than not, Shakespeare would have written it out of his own mind, and Masonry would have picked it up later on, because of its great poetic elloquence.
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 02:19 am
Very interestingly you mentioned a "river of time" without me ever mentioning it because it is that very meaning that has me wondering lol Wink

You said that the audience might have defined it several ways, so that means that by that time bourn already meant several things, not just a "brook stream or river" as the Old English root defines it?
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 02:25 am
I do not know - but why - since there was a Norman conquest in 1066, and a subsequent strong "Frenchification" of the English language, do you discount a meaning based on the Old French?

The "river of time" metaphor would be, I would think, as old as civilization - though your freemason quote is interesting.

Tell us more about the origins of Masonry? I had no idea it went back so far.

And I believe, firmly, that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare! LOL!
Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 02:29 am
Renaissance English was a glorious, evolving, multi-threaded thing!

So many influences!

Shakespeare is full of multi-layered, multi-resonating words and meanings - very "post-modern" - very associative - possibly very unconscious.

This is some of the glory and joy of his work - the many layers of meaning.
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 02:30 am
You may have noted that I am a fan of the English Renaissance!LOL!
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Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 10:06 am
OK - opinions from others:

Merry Andrew

My annotated copy of Hamlet says that 'bourne' means 'region.'
No etymology given, however.

Added on Sun, May 18, 2003 10:37 PM

My edition, by G. B. Harrison (1848, renewed 1952) footnotes "
bourn" as "boundary". And why not, considering the options?
After all, is somebody going stygian on us? We're going to the
undiscovered country whose bourn is the River Styx, and everybody
drowns there? Short of any allusions or jealously-guarded
scholar's loosey-goosey insistence on a river where no cultural
references indicated any, logic decrees that the "Bingo" is
boundary, not river.
Of course, I could be wrong. Often have been. Try changing my
mind; I'm a good listener.

Added on Sun, May 18, 2003 10:55 PM

Hmmmm.... This is a new one on me, Deb. But looking
into it a weebit, I find that that intimate Elizabethan poohbah,
A.W. Rowse, gives out that "bourne" implicates "boundaries."
Considering place names like Eastbourne and Bournemouth,
one could argue the Sussex suffix implies the east boundary,
while over in Hampshire, they boast of a river mouth, except I
ain't so sure that Bournemouth is on a river -- close to the
Stour's mouth and that of the Avon, but actually on nary.
Not to make a meal of it, it borders on being awash, I'd say.

(With thanks to Merry Andrew, Aa and Debacle who responded on Abuzz to this question.)
0 Replies
New Haven
Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 12:24 pm
I saw the word as meaning the same as "womb".
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New Haven
Reply Sun 18 May, 2003 01:01 pm
Interesting to reflect on just that single phrase again. If the word bourne means "womb", then obviously, once a person is born they can never return to the womb from which they came. "You can never go home".
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Reply Mon 19 May, 2003 06:31 am
Here is some charming and learned chatter which your question called forth amomgst friends:

Merry Andrew

bourn2 also bourne
(bôrn, brn, brn)
n. Archaic
A destination; 1.a goal.
2.A boundary; a limit.
[French bourne, from French dialectal bosne, borne, from Old
French bodne, limit, boundary marker, from Medieval Latin bodina,
of Celtic origin.]
That's the word from the American Heritage Dictionary online.

Added on Mon, May 19, 2003 5:07 AM

And so, it's unambigamous, Deb. "Boundary" is borne aloft by the
triage ye hailed.
O' course, ye dinna ask those who might seek to scotch it for the
sake o' yon bonnie banks o' wee Rabbie's burns. Such would
likely tell'ee that "bourn" trickles firth frae the Old Sassanach
"burna" which becks a "burn."
But, as Andy says, the French with their old "bodne" would erect
a limes at "bourn" to signify a destination, goal or boundary.

Added on Mon, May 19, 2003 9:46 AM

Alarmed that the OED seems to be ignored, Aa unclutches the OED
from her heaving bazoom just long enough to reach in and pluck
out noun #1 of 2:
[A variant of burn, being the form commonly used in the south of
England since the 14th c. Originally pronounced like burn,
adjourn: but the influence of the r disturbed the pronunciation,
as in mourn; whence the mod. spelling and pronunciation.]
A small stream, a brook; often applied (in this spelling) to the
winter bournes or winter torrents of the chalk downs. Applied to
northern streams it is usually spelt burn.

Added on Mon, May 19, 2003 9:50 AM

Aa scrutinizes definition #1 as it sets poised against the
nattering in the background. She decides that it looks lonely,
so she hastily sets down definition #2 before yanking the OED
back up to heaving bazoom.
In Eng. in Lord Berners, and in Shakspere (seven times), then
app. not till 18th c.; the modern use being due to Shakspere, and
in a large number of cases directly alluding to the passage in
Hamlet. Confused in spelling with bourn n.1
(The history of borne in Fr. is uncertain; Littré suggests that
it arose from the later bone, boune by the intercalation of r;
Diez supposed a substitution of r for d in the earlier bodne; M.
Paul Meyer says ?bodne, bosne, borne is an admissible phonetic
series, the more so that Pr. has a dim. bózola, and a n. bozolar
(borner, limiter)?.)]
? 1. A boundary (between fields, etc.).

Added on Mon, May 19, 2003 10:08 AM

Well done again, Aa. I was hoping the OED would come oot. And
what does the definitive tome have to say aboot a "limes"? That
was a new word to me, one which I came across when looking for
something else that I can't now recall.

Added on Mon, May 19, 2003 10:11 AM

This is the only entry under "limes":
_ limes (________). Pl. limites (__________).
[L. = limit.]
1538 Leland Itin. I. 1 A mile from Eltesle towards Neotes in the
limes of Cambridgshire.
157787 Harrison England i. xiv. in Holinshed, The Twede..is a
noble streame and the limes or bound betweene England and


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Reply Mon 19 May, 2003 06:32 am
New Haven - womb? Where are you getting that from?
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Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 12:44 am
Hi Deb, I'm guessing (and I could be wrong) that New Haven arrived at womb by interpreting bourne as born. Without any etymological basis, a reasonable assumption.
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Mr Stillwater
Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 12:54 am
It's an old Frisian word meaning 'rabbit who posts too damn much in one topic'.

OK, the Shorter OED attirbutes the modern usage of boundary to Shakespeare, although they say that the interpretation is probably 'frontier or pale'. It also crops up in the 'Merry Wives of Windsor'.
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Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 02:30 am
Evenin', Stagnant.

Oh - I get it now, Roberta!
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New Haven
Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 05:16 am
Roberta wrote:
Hi Deb, I'm guessing (and I could be wrong) that New Haven arrived at womb by interpreting bourne as born. Without any etymological basis, a reasonable assumption.

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New Haven
Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 05:43 am

1. No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
2. Thy pyramids built up with newer might
3. To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
4. They are but dressings of a former sight.
5. Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
6. What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
7. And rather make them born to our desire
8. Than think that we before have heard them told.
9. Thy registers and thee I both defy,
10. Not wondering at the present nor the past,
11. For thy records and what we see doth lie,
12. Made more or less by thy continual haste.
13. This I do vow and this shall ever be;
14. I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.


7. And rather make them born to our desire

them = the old things you have foisted upon us in the shape of new ones.

born to our desire = viewed as if they were our own new born creations (rather than the hackneyed repetition of old sights). There is possibly a pun on bourn, meaning border or limit, as in
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns Ham.III.1.79-80.
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Reply Sun 25 May, 2003 03:36 pm
I've been thinking about this discussion. Hey, what else do I have to do?

I'm wondering whether bourn and born were pronounced the same way in Shakespeare's time. Since the plays weren't intended to be read but performed, wouldn't the audience hear the word and interpret it in one of two ways? Might this be a play on words? From Willie S.? Whoda thunk?

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