I was reading a Russian translation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, when the queer word choice by the translator made me open the original work to see what the author actually wrote. And here it is:

I have not scaped drowning to be afeard now of your four legs; for it hath been said, As proper a man as ever went on four legs cannot make him give ground; and it shall be said so again while Stephano breathes at's nostrils.

I understand it like this, Shakespeare forgive me: "even the most proper man (among those on four legs) can not make him give ground".

Am I wrong? Also, this phrase seems pretty sarcastic/ironic to me ; is that so?

  • That is how I would understand it, too. I have no idea who “him” is, though, nor who these four-legged men are; and a brief Googly look at the context it appears in made me none the wiser. (Yes, I admit it: I am a troglodytic philistine—I have not read The Tempest and do not know what it’s about.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '15 at 8:58
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    "Him" is drunk Stephano, who sees two men (Caliban and Trinculo) sharing one cloak, thus the four legged man. – egoiste Apr 16 '15 at 9:12
  • Do I detect a reference to the "riddle of the sphinx" here? – Phil Sweet Apr 16 '18 at 1:46

Yes the sense of the sentence is "as proper a man as any who has ever gone on four legs." I suspect that Stephano, being a well-practiced drunk and a fellow of somewhat windy speech, is asserting that he will not make way for any man he meets who is on all fours—the joke being that he thereby excludes from the reach of his challenge anyone who isn't in that familiar (to him) fallen-down drunk position.

The aphoristic expression that Stephano mangles is "As good a man as ever went on two legs," according to a note in the Cambridge edition of The Tempest (2002).

  • Thanks for the great explanation and the link to the commented version! – egoiste Apr 17 '15 at 8:30

Another take: "a man on four legs" cannot "give ground," i.e. "fall down," since he must already be on the ground, i.e. down on his hands and knees, or "all fours," already.

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