The opening song of the Sweeney Todd musical contains the following passage about his wife:

There was another man who saw
that she was beautiful...
A pious vulture of the law
who, with a gesture of his claw
removed the barber from his plate!
Then there was nothing but to wait!
And she would fall!
So soft!
So young!
So lost and oh so beautiful!

Can anyone explain the definition of the word "plate" in this context? I can't find any definition that makes sense in its usage above. Perhaps it is an old English word?

3 Answers 3


Here, the meaning is, "The [vulture of the law] removed the barber from [the vulture's] plate."

This is a formulation of the idiom off one's plate:

No longer a matter of one's responsibility and concern

(Compare with the related too much on one's plate.)

In this idiomatic context, one's "plate" is the set of concerns one is trying to resolve.

The judge (the "vulture of the law") wanted to get access to the barber's wife; the barber himself was a matter of concern for the judge in achieving this end. When the judge eliminated the barber as a concern, he "removed the barber from his plate".

  • Thanks for that fantastic and well explained answer. It makes perfect sense now, especially with your reference to "too much on one's plate". For some reason, I had always assumed the "plate" belonged to the barber and not the judge. Dec 3, 2014 at 18:40

Considering that it's a musical involving human meat pies, I think it's a metaphor insinuating that, to the "vulture of the law", people were just food on a platter. By removing Sweeney from his "plate," the girl was then left alone and desperate.

  • 2
    On StackExchange, we don't generally encourage pure speculation to be posted as answers. You might prefer to convert this to a comment under the question.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 25, 2014 at 14:39

Or, Sondheim is indicating that Judge Turpin removed Sweeney Todd from his dinner table -- "his plate" -- and thus domestic comfort, safety and Sweeney's ability to protect his wife.

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