In Shakespeare's 1606 play "Macbeth" the titular character is filled with ambition to become king. His wife, Lady Macbeth, says to him:

Yet do I fear thy nature; it is too full o' the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way

She used this phrase to say to her husband that he is not ruthless enough to achieve his ambitions. The phrase generally has come to mean compassion and/or care for others, maybe mercifulness or something similar. All the sources I've seen simply say this is the meaning of "milk of human kindness", and that it's from Shakespeare's play Macbeth:

Fig. natural kindness and sympathy shown to others. (From Shakespeare's play Macbeth, I. v.)
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

This phrase comes from Macbeth. In Lady Macbeth's soliloquy on the subject of her husband's character, she remarks... (what I quoted above)
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary

In the internet search I did the only information I could find is what the phrase means and that it came from Shakespeare's play Macbeth.

I'm wondering if anyone knows what the milk is for in "milk of human kindness". Was Shakespeare the first to use it? I've checked dictionaries and "milk" doesn't have any special meanings I'm not aware of. The closest connection I can make is that milk is fed to a mother's young, and that that act can be seen as an act of self-sacrifice, love, maybe compassion in providing the nourishment for her little ones. Still, people are said to "have the milk of human kindness"; is "milk" here some metonym for love or sympathy or compassion?

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    Shakespeare Tempest (1623) ii. i. 293 They'l take suggestion, as a Cat laps milke . Because he was a creative genius. If a human being acts like a sweet cow, s/he produces kindness. It's actually pretty funny. Milk does mean: something pleasant or nourishing to the mind (OED). Milk and honey, the Bible.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 15:45
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    I suspect @Lambie's biblical land of milk and honey (Canaan) is the original answer, i.e. milk as a product of something. But the proof might be difficult. Shakespeare's pretty famous for inventing his own phrases and extending the English language. Milk and honey also shows up in Samuel Coleridge's Kubla Khan "for he on honey dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise". And there's also the modern phrase "to milk for all it's worth" (*Edit. just noticed Hotlicks already milked that one.)
    – S Conroy
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 16:15
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    @SConroy Poets just make stuff up, to put it bluntly. This seems to be hard to grasp for some. The Bard is not the only one, just perhaps the best. Many times one cannot "prove" where a poet got an idea. Most of the time, they don't even know. Right?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 16:18
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    It sounds humoral. Milk is a nourishing fluid from the mother. In humoral theories of medicine, milk was believed to be distilled from (IIRC) blood, which was social and sanguine. So he's too full of milk; in humoral terms, his bodily fluids are too far off a balance that would lend itself to ambition. Macbeth needs more heat, either in the form of choler (yellow bile) or pure blood. Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 17:15
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    @SConroy the power of suggestion had me read ‘Horlicks already milked that one’ and had me wondering if I’d missed a notable malted milk drink advertising campaign.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 20:07

4 Answers 4


There is a gross rule that will help you understand usages like this in early English literature:

  • If a body fluid is mentioned alongside or in place of an emotion, assume that they

    • (a) literally mean that fluid and
    • (b) mean it in a humoral way.

Much like mentioning a cold, even today, draws a number of associations with both medicine (someone has a cold, or someone caught cold) and imagined causes like external temperature, mentioning a bodily fluid in early modern England would draw associations with the systems of Galenic, humoral medicine. As the source helpfully shared in comments by @PhilSweet points out ("The World of Shakespeare's Humors"), the four basic humors were blood, phlegm, yellow bile (or choler), and black bile (or melancholy). They were like the four elements mapped onto the body, influencing everything from digestion to mood. All other fluids, including milk, would be formed and distilled from these four. Adding fluids or taking them away (bloodletting) could be used to improve physical and mental health.

Accordingly, a person's character was thought to be determined by humors, and so they would be described in such a way. Is someone enthusiastic but hasty to act? They may be hot-blooded. Are they irritable? They're cholic. (An aside: this informs modern usages of words like sanguine and melancholy, even though modern users aren't steeped in a humoral understanding of medicine.)

In the case of milk, milk was a fluid by which mothers would nourish and thus instill character into their children. Going to your quote, Macbeth is too full of milk; in humoral terms, his bodily fluids are too far off a balance that would lend itself to ambition. Lady Macbeth is remarking that, in how Macbeth has been raised, he lacks the ambition to commit regicide. Macbeth needs more heat, either in the form of choler (yellow bile) or pure blood.

This is important because, later in the same scene (Act I, scene v), milk comes up again. Lady Macbeth asks that her bodily fluids be switched in such a way that she can commit murder. I start partway through the speech:

... make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature's mischief!"

Lady Macbeth wants to substitute her milk (which would nourish a kid) for gall, which today would mean boldness and impertinence, but also refers to bile (Merriam-Webster). So here, too, the milk is too kind, too nourishing, and so it must be switched for something more murderous so that she can physically and mentally go through with murder.

  • That makes a lot of sense. In the case of milk, is it literal or metaphoric? You mentioned that the belief may have been that milk was distilled from blood. This would seem to imply a literal meaning of the milk, and as a rule of thumb you said references to bodily fluids should be taken literally. But then you explain milk metaphorically as in "milk (which would nourish a kid)". This explanation of milk being for nourishment sounds like what I was thinking when I asked if milk was used as a metonym for caring for one's young. I didn't know about any association between milk and blood.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 2:04
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    Nourish a kid? Surely you mean a child.
    – David
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 12:42
  • @David I thought "kid" was kind of cool as it covered humans and many suckling animals too. Though yeah, I get your point. Infants can be on their mother's milk, and infants can be kids (I think). I used "mother" and "young" to be more general.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 12:56
  • I shudder when I see “kid” used in an article about Shakespeare. However even in modern slang usage a suckling kid sounds wrong. Baby, child or infant.
    – David
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 13:01
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    And do keep in mind that Shakey never metaphor he didn't like.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 14:38

Dictionary.com says of the idiom

milk of human kindness, the
Compassion, sympathy, as in There's no milk of human kindness in that girl—she's totally selfish. This expression was invented by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1:5), where Lady Macbeth complains that her husband “is too full of the milk of human kindness” to kill his rivals.

Here's an interesting fact, in Czech the expression krev a mlíko is translated in English as milk and blood; however, its meaning is far removed from that of Shakespeare's milk of human kindness. It refers to a voluptuous curvy woman, it's also worth noting that milk is clearly associated with the fairer sex, and despite the idea of it combined with blood stirring in me a sense of mild disgust, "milk and blood" does suggest someone who is expressly feminine yet passionate, and added bonus, lusty too. Lest we forget, blood is red; the color of love and passion.

Similarly, the themes of blood and milk often make their appearance in Macbeth, as @TaliesinMerlin's answer also illustrates.


In the famous line, Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being compassionate, of being too nurturing, of acting motherly. Today, some might use the slang “wuss”: failing to do or complete something as a result of fear or lack of confidence, this accusation could have been aimed at a person who had never entered into battle but to a Scottish general? Macbeth, by all accounts, was a valiant warrior whose sword had slashed and massacred innumerable lives.

"For brave Macbeth — well he deserves that name —
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave." I. ii. 16-20.


"Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof."
I. ii. 54.

Bellona, the Roman goddess of war, and Macbeth her groom.


Yet, Macbeth's very own wife, the person who knew him better than any other accused him of being a loving nurturing mother. “Human milk” i.e. breast milk, is naturally warm and fed to babies, the most vulnerable and innocent participants of mankind.

The imagery of masculine resolve and unbridled ambition is later summoned by Lady Macbeth

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

I suggest that Shakespeare uses the expression “milk of human kindness” in its literal sense, milk was known to be nourishing and essential for babies to prosper and grow but it was also believed to contain human personality traits. Elizabethans knew that breastfeeding was responsible for creating the profound bond between a mother and her child.

“In the fifteenth century, as Paulus Bagellardus tells us, a -mother customarily suckled her child for two or three years.”

Due in part to this bonding period, several superstitions about breast milk persisted throughout the 15th and 16th century. Wet-nurses were employed to breast feed babies whose biological mothers were unable to suckle but it was essential that these women were of good character lest the infant should suck in the vices of a sluttish or evil-tempered wet-nurse.

… for example, was the ancient belief in the transmission of qualities of temperament from nurse to child. In solemn proof whereof we are given the story of the Queen of France who, solicitous of the welfare of her infant, devoted both time and energy to suckle him herself. One day, however, she surprised a great lady of the court giving the babe her breast. Horrified and indignant, the Queen thrust her finger down the child's throat, and he, perceiving (so it almost seemed) the danger to which he had so rashly exposed himself, rid his stomach of the illicit meal, thus preserving his royal humours from contamination with merely aristocratic virtues and providing an, object-lesson to all and sundry of lower degree who might look too lightly on wet-nursing.

Source: The History of Infant Feeding from Elizabethan Times.

enter image description here

A poor woman in a dingy attic, surrounded by her children, one of whom she is breast-feeding.
Engraving by N. de Larmessin III after J. Pierre.

This superstition is also confirmed by Dr Victoria Sparey

As a substance of the humoral body, breast milk was accordingly understood to shape the physicality and mentality of the suckling child. As Thomas Raynalde observed, ‘affections and qualities [of the nurse] passeth forth through the milke into the child, making the child of like condition and manners.’

But Raynalde also argued that the milk produced by the mother was more agreeable and nourishing for an infant, noting that it was the same blood they consumed in utero, only converted to milk.

I am of the opinion that it is fit for every Mother to nurse her own Child, because her milk which is nothing but the blood whitened, which nourished the child in the womb and of which the child was conceived…

The 'byrth of mankynde' Thomas Raynolde (1540)

Lastly from the Old Testament, we have the binomial pair milk and honey. From the King James Bible, 1604-1611

  • Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.
    Source: Song of Solomon 4:11
  • And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey source: Deuteronomy 26:9

For over 1,500 years milk had represented prosperity and goodness, its positive symbolism had been firmly established long before Shakespeare had penned the line "Yet do I fear thy nature; it is too full o' the milk of human kindness."

  • There's a lot of interesting info in this answer. So you think milk is used literally, as does the other answerer. But the thing is that despite that, you've both evoked a metaphoric link between milk and caring/motherliness/gentleness etc. Even when Lady Macbeth says: "And take my milk for gall", that would definitely support the literal humorism theory, but I still don't understand how we get from milk to blood (too much of the blood humor supposedly being the problem). TalliesInMerlin mentioned in a comment rather hesitantly that maybe it was believed that milk was distilled from blood.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 13:13
  • I was thinking about "milksop", which is attested from the 14th century, "term of contempt for an effeminate, spiritless man, "one who is devoid of manliness," and the association between milk and the young (mammals generally). However given Lady Macbeth's line about replacing her milk with gall would seem indicate that the milk has something to do with a humor other than gall (one of the two biles). I think that link about Shakespeare and the humors is pretty telling. I suppose it's not tenable to think that the milk and gall were just non-humoral references to cowardliness and boldness.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 13:30
  • @Zebrafish I found supporting evidence that shows milk was believed to have derived from the mother's womb, ergo her blood.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 14:38

English texts referring to milk in a metaphorical sense as a source of good (or sometimes evil) spiritual nourishment go back several centuries at least. My answer looks at various instances that appear in books published before 1608, when Macbeth was first performed.

The earliest such text, by print publication date, that an Early English Books Online search yields is William Caxton's 1481 printing of Ranullf Higden, Prolicionycion, which includes this instance:

To fore honde was sente a sterne man in to englond atte prayer of kynge Oswald for to teche his peple & dyde but lytel prouffyt and torned home ayene to his owne / as he that had trauayled in yole / thenne the Scottes treted amonge them for to sende another man in to englond / Men saye that to hym that was soo comen ageyne in to Scotland Aidanus spak in this manere. Brother me semeth that thou were harder / than thou sholdest be / For to men that ben rude and vnconnynge thou yaf not at the begynnyng the mylke of good loore / as thappostle techeth / that whan they ben esely brought in lytel and lytel thēne ben they able to vnderstande parfyght loore.

This same anecdote appears more than a century later in Francis Godwin, A Catalogue of the Bishops of England, Since the First Planting of Christian Religion in This Island (1601):

It séemeth to me (quoth he [Aidanus]) that this our brother dealt somewhat to roughly with his vnlearned auditors, not 〈◊〉 them first with the milke of gentle words, and easie doctrine, according to the councell of the Apostle, vntill such time as they were enabled to digest stronger meat: And this I take to be the cause of the ill successe his preaching had a∣mongst them.

Several decades older than Caxton's edition of Higden, however, is John Lydgate's The Fall of Princes (1431–1438) based on Giovanni Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium and republished as The tragedies, gathered by Ihon Bochas, of all such princes as fell from theyr estates throughe the mutability of fortune since the creacion of Adam, vntil his time wherin may be seen what vices bring menne to destruccion, wyth notable warninges howe the like may be auoyded:

This tragedy of Calistenes, / Declareth vs by notable remembraūce / He was with Plato and olde Socrates / In his youth put vnder gouernaunce, / Dranke of the milke of plenteous aboūdaūce, / Of their two scholes, euer deuoyde of slouth, / Last by Alexander dismēbred for his trouth

From Christopher Saint German, A Treatise Concernynge the Diuision Betwene the Spirytualtie and Temporaltie (1532[?]):

Be meke / put away al fiersenes / forbere betyng / & speke vnto ye people faire & sobre wordes, and set not your yock to greuously vpon thē, whose burdeyns ye ought rather to bere. If ye be spiritual, instruct ye people in the spirite of Softenes, & let euery mā cōsidre hym selfe well, leest that he may be also tempted. He that is a mother dyssymuleth not / he can ioye with them that ioye / wepe with them that wepe / and he wylle not ceasse to thruste oute of the breste of compassion the mylke of cōsolation.

From a 1534 translation of Ulrich Pinder, The Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion:

All ye that in tyme past mourned or wept in the cōsideration of the passion of Christ: ioy now therof in cōsiderynge the great profites that cometh therof / sucke them / that is / depely and inwardly considre them / that ye may be replenisshed with the teates or pappes of his consola∣tions. And also ye shall mylke those pappys that ye may aboūde in all spirituall pleasure by the consideration of his great glorie. In the remembraūce of the passion of Christe when we considre his most greuous paynes / and how yt we were the cause of them / thorowe our vnkyndnes and synnes / then we sucke out of it so∣rowe and heuynes. And when we considre what profit comethe therof vnto mankynde / then we suck out of it great comforth and ioy. And these two be the teetes or pappys of the whiche the prophet Esay [Is aiah] speaketh: and of the whiche the faythfull people sucke great comforth in receyuynge the sacrament of the bodye of our lorde. From these pappys whan they be sucked cometh the mylke of chastitie and puritie of lyfe / and also the swetnes of all vertue.

From Thomas Elyot, The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1578):

Titus Liuius, the moste excellent hystorien or writer of stories, in whom was the foūtayne of the mylke of pure eloquence.

From the "Table of the principal maters conteyned in the Bible" that appears in Richard Taverner, The Most Sacred Bible, Whiche Is the Holy Scripture Conteyning the Old and New Testament (1539), which contains this entry under the heading "Born agayne":

We are borne a newe by the worde of god whiche hath ben preached vnto vs .i. pet .i. d. For yf a man be not borne agayne (that is in doctrine by the holy ghoste) he can not entre in to kyngdom of heuen, and bileue in Christ Iohn .iii. a. Therfore they that are so borne out to put away all malyce, & as newe borne chyldrē desyre the milke of the word of god .i. pe .ii. a.

The text in the First Letter of Peter cited at the end of this quotation reads as follows in The New English Bible (Oxford/Cambridge 1961):

Then away with all malice and deceit, away with all pretence and jealousy and recrimination off all kind! Like the new-born infants you are, you must crave for pure milk (spiritual milk, I mean), so that you may thrive upon it to your souls' health. Surely you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Many subsequent sixteenth-century English translators and writers allude to "the milk of God's word," "the milk of the Apostles," "the milk of heaven," "the milk of faith," and the like, most of which I will not itemize here.

From a 1539 translation of Wolfgang Capito, An Epitome of the Psalmes, or Briefe Meditacions vpon the Same, with Diuerse Other Moste Christian Prayers:

Suffer not my harte to swell in pryde, nor myne eyes to shew any proude lokes, that I take not to much vpon me, neyther arrogantly auaunce my selfe aboue Christe our heade, but make, yt I maye gredyly couet to haue good sauoure in thy worde only, as much as thou shalte vouchsaue to open vnto me. And in case thou wythholdest the mylk of cōforte whych streameth frō Christe wel vnderstanded and knowen: yet let vs not Lorde despayre, but truste wyth a quyet herte alway vpon the. So be it.

From Thomas Elyot, A Preservatiue Agaynste Deth (1545):

If he [a man at his day of judgment] appere before Christe laded with possessions and richesse, beyng not withstandyng naked of vertue and of benefittes emploied on the publike weale of his countray, he hath on a wronge garmēt. And than shall he here the kyng saie to his officers: whan ye haue boūd his handes and his feete, throwe hym into extreme darkenesse: there shall be waylynges, and gnashyng of teeth. He therfore ought to be aferde of the trumpet. And put awaie his mouthe from the pappe of the worlde, and takynge quyekely a draught of repentaunce, to vomite vp the milke of Ambicion, wherof he hath souked.

From a 1545 translation of St Bernard of Clairvaux, A compe[n]dius [and] a moche fruytefull treatyse of well liuynge co[n]taynyng the hole su[m]me and effect of al vertue:

And so ye haue fulfylled that is wryttē. The barrē hath brought forthe seuen chyldren. Therfore good syster, ye muste nouryshe repast confort and chasten these your goodly chyldren, ye muste nouryshe them with good maners, with deuoute contemplacyon, with the mylke of eternall swetenesse, ye must repast them with the loue of heuēly pasture, ye muste conforte them, with the breade of the worde of God. Ye must chasten them, with the roddes of the feare of god, and commaunde them to flye, and auoyd all pryde, and lyghtnesse, & that they neuer transgresse his commaundementes, and that they neuer go ne departe from you.

From a 1548 translation of Desiderius Erasmus, The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente:

For Chryste groweth bygger and bygger in vs, and shooteth vp more and more to mannes state, whan we from the fyrste enstruccyons and articles of the fayth doe encroche forwarde to a more depe hydden wisedom of the scripture of God: whan we forsake the milke of the fleashe, and begin to haue a stomake or appetyte to the sounde and stronge meate of the spiryte: when we leaue the vnsauerye letter, and thirste the mystycall sence and meaning: whan we nothyng esteme ne regarde thynges yearthly, but mounte vp and take our flight to thinges celestiall.

From a 1549 translation of Desiderius Erasmus, The Second Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente:

When I sawe you therfore in Christes learnyng but euen younglynges, I fed you as it were with the mylke of grosse learnyng and not with the substancial foode of perfite doctrine, not because I was not able to teach you greater poyntes, but because ye by reason of carnall affections, & blynd∣nes of your former lyfe, •er not able to vnderstand higher learnynge, as diuerse among you are not able yet.


[A]nd you, whome it behoued nowe to be strong and stablished in euangelicall Philosophie, haue nede as yet lyke tendre babes to be fed with the mylke of lowest doctryne: rather then be meete to receyue the strong meate of higher learnyng.

From a 1549 translation of Bernardino Ochino, "A Tragoedie or Dialoge of the Vniuste Vsurped Primacie of the Bishop of Rome, and of Aall the Iust Abolishyng of the Same":

The church. I will be theyr spirituall mother, and as a spiritual mother I wil comfort them, giue sucke to them and noryshe them to Christe.

The people. Nay ye will suck al the blude from thē, and if ye fortune to gyue thē suck, it shalbe with the mylke of adulacion and flattery.

From Roger Edgeworth, "The Fift Treatise or Sermon," in Sermons Very Fruitfull, Godly, and Learned, Preached and Sette Foorth by Maister Roger Edgeworth (1557):

All these vices rehersed, and suche others, must be layd away & purged out of the stomackes of your soules, whiche done, you shall euen like reasonable infantes lately borne, couet & desire to be fed with that milke that is without gile or deceit, the milke of the soul, and not of the body, by which you may grow, & waxe bigge toward saluation, specially if you haue tasted (sayth S. Peter) that God is swete, good, & curtise. Here be diuersities of translations, one sayth, infantes rationabiles, an other sayth, rationa bile & sine dolo lac, the thyrde redeth it, Lac illud non corporis sed animi, & this laste agreeth with the second, meaning that the milke that we must desire to be nursed with all, is not the milke of the body, as nether cowe milke, nor the mylke of womans brestes that fedeth the bodye, but it is the milke of reason by which the reasonable soul is noursed and fed, and that is holy doctrine, as I shall say anone.

From a 1571 translation of Tigurinus Chelidonius, A Most Excellent Hystorie, of the Institution and Firste Beginning of Christian Pprinces, and the Originall of Kingdomes:

But what a gracious testimonie haue we in Esay [Isaiah], of the allyance that kings haue made with the Churche? Where he sayth, The kings and princes shal giue thée milke, and shall be thy nursses, they shall doo honour and reuerence vnto thée with their faces flat vppon the earth: kings shall walke in thy lyght, and shall buylde thy walles, they shall bring vnto thée golde and siluer, and shall serue thée, thou shalte sucke the milke of nations, and thou shalte bée nourished of the breastes and teates of princes.

From Thomas Palfreyman, "A Deuout Meditation of the Godly Christian, with a Briefe Confession and Prayer" (1572):

We regarde nothing at all, the sodaine comming of the sonne of man: by whose mighty arme (in our forgot fulnesse) we he woorthily stricken to the death, and to our mother the earth againe: in whose entrails we were once brod; and oute of whose moste ponsoned pappes, we haue suckt the milke, of all our deadly delites: and with the brusting draught of our most beastly excesse, we haue sodainely ouerthrowne our selues, and haue very willingly faln, vpon thy mercilesse swoorde of deathe.

From Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1577):

In thys meane tyme, of a small matter and the same altogether false and fayned, there was an open path made and beaten foorth, for a greater inconuenience to ensue: the whyche matter myghte seeme verye straunge howe suche trouble and myschiefe shoulde growe thereof, if the tyme were not consydered, in whyche it happened: for in those dayes manye persons, eyther borne in the wombe of continuall dissention, or nouryshed wyth the mylke of Ciuile sedition, coulde not forbeare theyr vsuall Custome of mouyng stryfe, and sowyng debate, euer gladde to haue any occasion, thoughe neuer so small, to styrre vprores of warre, and slaughter of people.

From Henry Howard (Earl of Northampton), A defensatiue against the poyson of supposed prophesies not hitherto confuted by the penne of any man, which being grounded, eyther vppon the warrant and authority of olde paynted bookes, expositions of dreames, oracles, reuelations, inuocations of damned spirites, iudicialles of astrologie, or any other kinde of pretended knowledge whatsoeuer, de futuris contingentibus: haue beene causes of great disorder in the common wealth, cheefly among the simple and vnlearned people: very needefull to be published at this time, considering the late offence which grew by most palpable and grosse errours in astrology (1583):

But though we should admit this rule in certaine things: yet can it not be stretched vnto al, nor to the principal before the base, or if it might extend to all: it could auaile vs little, so lōg as our sences are too dull to discry this secret light, which lurketh in the breast of nature. The publication of such vaine & friuelous conceits, as these: is a better meane to foster ignorance, then to weane the wilde and wanton heads of this vnrulie age, frō the milke of vanitie.

From William Averell, A Dyall for Dainty Darlings, Rockt in the Cradle of Securitie (1584):

Noting also, the honest and mutuall fréendship, the vertuous and faithfull loue, that daylie increased in the minds of these two younglings, he thought that match could not be made a misse, where loue was the beginning, and vertue was the ende, and therefore breaking one day the matter vnto his daughter, was desyrous to know the affections of her minde, at which he aimed by ye dispositions of her body, and she whome simplicity had nourished with the milke of truth, hauing her face stained with the vermillion of vertue, with blushing countenaunce reuealed that loue, which her outward iestures could not conceale, desiring therin the consent of her fathers mind, from whose body she had receiued the substaunce of her being, shewing him that she was more drawn to loue him by the view of vertue, then any affection dimmed with the vaile of vanitie, requesting him, that as he had béene a Father of her body, in giuing to her those thinges necessarie for her vse, so he would be also a gouernor of her life, in not denying her him wheron her ioies did rest:

From Robert Parsons, A Christian Directorie Guiding Men to Their Saluation (1585):

It [the world] hath infinite strumpetes of Babilon, to offer him drink in golden cuppes; but al mingled with most deadly poison. It hath in euery doore an alluring Iahel, to entise him vnto the milke of pleasures and delites; but al haue their hammers and nailes in their handes, to murder him in the braine, when he falleth a sleepe. It hath in euery corner, a flattering Ioab, to embrace with one arme, and kil with th' other; a false Iudas, to geue a kisse, and therwith to betraye.

From a 1586 translation of Pierre La Primaudaye, The French academie wherin is discoursed the institution of maners, and whatsoeuer els concerneth the good and happie life of all estates and callings, by preceptes of doctrine, and examples of the liues of ancient sages and famous men:

Let vs not be giuen to lying, or to harken to slanderers, but following the counsell of the Scripture, let vs laye aside* all malitiousnes, and all guile, and dissimulation, and enuie, and all euill speaking, and as newe borne babes desire the milke of vnderstanding, which we may as it were boast that we haue in the true and right knowledge of Iustice, which is to render to God that which is due to him, according to pietie, and to our neighbours whatsoeuer belongeth to them, according to the dutie of charitie, which is gentle, not easily prouoked to anger, nor enuious, nor reioycing in iniquitie, but alwaies in the truth.

From Euerard Digbie, Euerard Digbie His Dissuasiue From Taking Away the Lyuings and Goods of the Church (1590):

Hee [Emperor Constantine] nursed and nourished them [Christians], he called them togither into one place, knowing that vnited vertue is the stronger. He gaue them the milke of good and wholesome councell, willing them in the name of God to foresee what was the truth, to seeke that, to discusse that, & with one consent to conclude that, & he with all his wil & power would ratifie the same.

From Richard Alison, A plaine confutation of a treatise of Brownisme, published by some of that faction, entituled: A description of the visible Church In the confutation wherof, is shewed, that the author hath neither described a true gouerment of the Church, nor yet proued, that outward discipline is the life of the Church (1590):

Heerevppon it commeth that such as haue beene nourished with the milke of discontentment, strengthened with the spirite of vnquietnesse, and cloathed with the profession of a godlie conscience, do now trouble and molest vs, refuse to continue with vs, and make a nullitie of our Church.

From Henrrty Barrow, A plaine refutation of M. G. Giffardes reprochful booke, intituled a short treatise against the Donatists of England Wherein is discouered the forgery of the whole ministrie, the confusion, false worship, and antichristian disorder of these parish assemblies, called the Church of England (1591):

Now wee knowing the plant cannot easilye be deceiued in the grafts, especiallie knowing them from their cradles, nourished with the milke of superstition, instructed in the schole of heathen vanitie, brought vp in the Colledges of more then monkish idlenes and disorder, exercised in vaine and curious artes, whose diuinitie is by tradition, and according to their progresse & degrees therin commēded to the Ordinarie, who making probation of them accordingly, doth either initiate or trayne them in this idolatrons office, or els giue them their full orders, with his paper licence & popish seale therat.

From a circa 1592–1596 translation of Petrus Canisius, A Summe of Christian Doctrine:

Come drinke of that wine, which the holy wisdome of God hath mingled vnto you. And least you be terrified with the expectation of your fathers seuerity, and discipline: beholde your mother with her naked breasts cometh to meete you, ready to embrace you, and as new borne Infants to nourish you with the milke of her clemency and kindnes.

From a 1600 translation of Philippe de Mornay, Fowre Bookes, of the Institution, Vse and Doctrine of the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Old Church:

The church is the house of God, but it is not God: wee beleeue the church, but we beleeue not in the church: It is the mother, * but the two testaments are her teates; from them we must sucke the milke of all the mysteries of our saluation.

From a 1600 translation of Antonio de Torquemada, The Spanish Mandeuile of Miracles: Or The Garden of Curious Flowers:

Those that are wisest therfore, are neuer puffed vp with such an opinion of their owne wisedome: but conforming themselues with the truth, doe say as Socrates sayde? One thing onely doe I know, which is, that I know nothing. This proceedeth of the shortnes of our life, the greatnes of the world, the secrets of Nature, the weakenes of our vnderstanding, and the error with which we abuse our selues in thinking that all things to be knowne, are comprehended in that little which we know. Diuers therefore of cleare iudgments, seeing the end of their dayes vnineuitably approach, sustaine no small griefe to see that they scarcely begin to know the worlde, and to vnderstand some particularities thereof, when forcibly they are constrained to leaue the same, and so to dye with the milke of wisedome in their mouthes.

From Henry Petowe, "Englands Cæsar His Maiesties Most Royall Coronation" (1603):

He comes he comes, see London where he comes, / That claspeth peace and plenty in his armes! / Embrace him kindly, Times glasse how quicke it runes: / Be thou as quicke, and with some heau'nly Charmes, / Mixt with the milke of prayer, Iuyce of zeale, / Lie groueling in the dust in the mid-way: / And let not passe the solace of thy weale, / Before he heare thy harmeles Orphans pray.

From Anthony Sherley, "Of Wisdome," in Witts New Dyall: or, A sSchollers Prize (1604):

Wisedome was by Nature got, / And by Experience nourished, / Brought forth by Learning (being her lot) / And by the milke of Reading fed.

Fropm Barnabe Barnes, Foure Bookes of Offices Enabling Privat Persons for the Speciall Seruice of All Good Princes and Policies (1606):

Finally, these three properties are they which sanctifie him [the sovereign] amongst his subiects, and through the whole world: Clemencie, which is the iewell of princes; Mercy the Sun-shine of kings; and Lenitie being as it were the milke of maiestie.

And from Arthur Dent, The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heauen (1607):

Euen as the great strength of Sampson lay in his haire; so the great strength of the world lieth in her two breasts: the one of pleasure, the other of profit. For she, like a notable strumpet, by laying out these her breasts, doth bewitch the sonnes of men, and allureth thousands to her lust. For if she cannot winne them with the one breast, yet she gameth them with the other: if not with pleasure, then with profit: if not with profit, then with pleasure. Hée is an odde man of a thousand, that sucketh not of the one breast or the other. But sure it is, which soeuer he sucketh, he shall be poisoned. For shée giueth none other milke, but ranke poysen. The world therefore is like to an alluring Iael, which sitteth at her doore, to entise vs to come in, and eat of the milke of her pleasures: but when she hath once got vs in, she is ready (euen while we are eating) with her hammer and her naile, to pearce thorow our braines.

In these 30-odd examples, "the milk of" means roughly "the natural and [usually but not always] wholesome nourishment of." It is hardly a stretch for Shakespeare to refer to "human kindness" as a source of such nourishment.

  • 1
    The story of "Roman Charity" (Cimon and Pero) dates to maybe 1st century or earlier. It had an artistic revival of sorts maybe early 16th century. I recall Carravagio depicted it in c. 1605
    – Yorik
    Commented Mar 27 at 20:32

I would look at Isaiah 60:16, Job 10:10, and 1 Peter 2:2 in the King James Version even though Shakespeare had a different translation at the time.

“You will also suck the milk of nations [KJV has 'Gentiles'], And will suck the breast of kings;

These could be inspirational verses for the phrase. [Particularly the verse quoted, which obviously uses the 'milk = material provision' (with a hint of bountifulness, even liberality) metaphor.]

  • 2
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Jan 22 at 17:44
  • 1
    Can you make explicit the connections with both 'milk' -and- 'kindness' Quote those verses and say what in them corresponds to the Shakepeare quote.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 22 at 18:26

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