Set at Maw, The

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Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 10v (Greg, I.20)
ye 14 of decembʒ 1594
. . . ne . . .
Res at the maw . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Fol. 11 (Greg, I.21)
ye 2 of Jenewary 1594
. . . . . . . . .
Res at the seat at mawe . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
ye 17 of Jenewary 1594

Res at the mawe . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
ye 28 of Jenewary 1594

Res at the mawe . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Theatrical Provenance

"The Set at Maw" belonged to the Admiral's men in the winter of 1594-5, when the company was playing at the Rose. It appears nowhere else in extant theater records.

Probable Genre(s)

Harbage suggests that the play was a comedy.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

See For What It's Worth, below.

References to the Play

None known. There are, however, references to card games in other plays, for example, Thomas Dekker'sMatch me in London, 1631, John Ford's Love's Sacrifice, 1633, and Peter Hausted's The Rival Friends. References appear also in social commentary, including A friendlie communicication or dialogue betweene Paule and Damas wherein is disputed how we are to vse the pleasures of this life by Samuel Byrd, 1580; Nicholas Breton's Machiuells dogge, 1617, in which a depressed gallant seeks diversion in cards; and a marriage sermon by Thomas Cataker, "A wife indeed," 1623 (printed as companion to "A good wife God's gift").

Critical Commentary

Malone comments that "Maw" was a game of cards, and he reads the second entry of the play title as "seut, i.e., "suit" (p. 296, n.4). He also identifies "The Mack" as a play entitled for a "game at cards" (p. 296, n.5).

Collier agrees that the title of "Set at Maw" indicates a card game but rejects Malone's reading of the second performance of the play in the manuscript as "seut" (p. 47, n.1). He agrees also that "The Mack" refers to a card game, and he conjectures that it "was perhaps written in consequence of the success of the Maw, already many times represented" (p. 49, n. 3). In fact, four performances is not very many.

Fleay, BCED [#61, 1.134-5), who calls the play "The Set at Maw" (2.303, #161), believes that Thomas Dekker's Match me in London (Q1631) belonged to 1611 and that it was "pretty clearly an alteration of The Set at Maw" because of its use of the language of card games (shuffling, dealing, cutting the cards, turning up a "Court card" [p. 135]).

Hazlitt indulges in the practice of lumping "The Set at Maw" with other plays as well. In A Manual for the Collector and Amateur of Old English Plays , he suggests that the item in Henslowe's diary was "similar, if not the same" as a play in the Revels Accounts on 26 December 1582 entered as "'A Comedy or Moral devised on a game of the Cards on St. Stephen's Night by the Children of the Chapel'" (p. 153 [1]).

Greg II (#63, p. 172) takes seriously Fleay's lumping of "The Set at Maw" with Thomas Dekker's Match me in London on the basis of its allusions to cards and "one specific reference to the game of maw." However, he can't find additional evidence to support the connection. He considers evidence of revision in the Dekker play too slight to be persuasive, and he deems the argument that the "Maw" play could have traveled with Dekker to Queen Anna's men more than a decade later to be irrelevant to the issue of lumping the plays. Greg considers the item, "j mawe gowne of calleco for the quene" in Henslowe's inventory of costumes on 10 March 1598/9 to "possibly" be for "The Set at Mawe" (Greg, Papers APX, I. 1, p. 115, l. 31, n.31).

Gurr, crediting John Astington for the information, notes that "[t]he word 'mawe' inexplicably" appears in the description of a costume in Philip Henslowe's inventory of various suits "as 'j mawe gowne of calleco for the queen'" (Greg, Papers, APX. I, art. 1, p. 115, l. 31). It is not clear that Gurr means to link that costume to "The Set at Maw" (#24, p. 212, n.31).

Wiggins, Catalogue (#977) likens the game of Maw to cribbage. He notes that a "set" at Maw was five tricks (which he impishly likens to "the traditional five acts of a play"). He suggests further that the action might have imitated in some ways the playing of the game of Maw, "in which the knave could trump the king or queen, while in turn the five, sometimes associated with a hand's five fingers, could trump the knave."

For What It's Worth

Rules of the Game

Friend of the LPD, Cassidy Cash, points out that a key feature of Maw is that each game has a trump suit, which is determined by the initial deal. There is also a repeating set of trump cards, which rank as follows:

1. Five of trumps ("Five fingers")
2. Jack of trumps (Knave/Fool)
3. Ace of Hearts
4. Ace of trump suit (if other than Hearts)

Cash provides a guide to the basic flow of play on her website ( [2]).

Cash locates a ballad, The Groome-porter's Lawes, which outlines various penalties and special conditions for knowledgeable Maw players (EBBA #37082); a transcription of the ballad is below:

        The Groome-porters lawes
                at Mawe, to be observed in fulfilling the
                        due orders of the Game.
1. If you change hands, it is the losse of the Set,
2. If you renounce, it is the losse of the Set.
3. If you leade when your Mate shoulde, it is the loss of that game and vied cardes.
4. If you lose Dealing, it is the losse of fower cardes, but if the loser of the dealing deale not againe, you acquire the fower, and no gain to either of both parties.
5. If you look either on ye asked carde, or the bottom carde, it is the losse of that game and vied cardes, in whom the fault is found.
6. If you roub (not having the Ace) you lose fower, & al the vied cards although you lay down the same carde which you took up.
7. If you make out the carde when your Mate rubbeth it is the loss of fower, for the roubber must make out the carde himself.
8. If you turne vp the Ace of Hartes you gaine fower thereby.
9. If you turne vp the Ace of Hartes, and thereby make either partie aboue xxvi, the contrary part must haue Liuings, but if the contrary part be xxv, by meanes whereof Liuings sets them out, then is he who turned vp the Ace of Hartes to make for the Set, so that he make not one Game nor the first Tricke, without the consent of both parties.
10. The partie that asketh a carde, may not vie any carde, before the first tricke be played.
11. You may not vie it after your card is led, but the contrary part may.
12. Three cardes crossed, no carde by any meanes giuen backe.
13. Neither partie may giue backe his owne vied car, though none be crossed.
14. You may not aske a carde to set the contrary parte or your selfe at Liuings or out.
15. Prouided alwaies, that if the contrary parte bee xxiii, or aboue, byreason that fower sets the other partie behinde the Liuings, it shalbe lawfull for the partie which is behinde to aske a carde, although the carde so asked put the other to Liuings.
16. Prouided also that if you meane to lead a helpe, you may vie it vpon your owne asked carde, so as it be done before the helpe be out of your hand, the contrary part may pledge you a card after he seeth your helpe vpon the boord, so it be done before his owne card be played.

Cultural Context

Cash volunteers historical context for an interest in the game of Maw at the highest level of early modern English society. Indeed, Mary Queen of Scots was credited with having introduced Maw to the English Court, and Elizabeth I was known to have an official set of rules for the game. James I was a huge fan (the game is said to have been a Scottish game originally).

Robert Chambers commented in some detail about the cultural context of "Maw" ("Playing and Playing-Cards," December 28, p. 779 ("Card-Playing and Playing-Cards," December 28, p. 779 ). Emphasizing the popularity of card games during holidays, he cited Sir John Harrington's quip: "Maw,/ A game without civility or law;/ An odious play, and yet at court oft seen,/ A saucy Knave to trump both King and Queen." Noting that Maw replaced Primero in popularity, Chambers added that "Maw was the favourite game of James I, who appears to have played at cards, just as he played with affairs of state, in an indolent manner; requiring in both cases someone to hold his cards, if not to prompt him what to play." Chambers repeated an anecdote about the king's joking at a game of Maw about the trial of Sir Thomas Monson; he also quoted from a contemporary pamphlet, Tom Tell-Truth, which scolds James for ineptitude in the language of Maw:

"Even in the very gaming ordinaries, where men have scarce leisure to say grace, yet they take a time to censure your majesty's actions, and that in their old-school terms. They say you have lost the fairest game at Maw that ever king had, for want of making the best advantage of five-finger, and playing the other helps in time. That your own card-holders play booty, and and give the sign out of your own hand."

Providing also an international spin on the language of Maw, Chambers quoted the following:

'Denmark, not sitting far, and seeing what hand
Great Britain had, and how Rome's loss did stand,
Hopes to win something too: Maw is the game
At which he plays, and challengeth at the same
A Monk, who stakes a chalice; Denmark sets gold
And shuffles; the Monk cuts; Denmark being bold,
Deals freely round; and the first card he shews
Is the five-fingers, which, being turned up, goes
Cold to the Monk's heart; the next Denmark sees
Is the ace of Hearts; the Monk cried out I lees!
Denmark replies, Sir Monk shew what you have;
The Monk could show him nothing but the knave.'

Chambers deduced from the references in the epigram to cards in the game of Maw—"the 'five-fingers' (the five of trumps), the ace of hearts, and the knave"—that Maw was very similar to Five Cards, a game popular for centuries in Ireland. Commenting also on the game of Noddy, Chambers considered it an older form of the cribbage known in his own time.

Works Cited

Cash, Cassidy. "How to Play Maw or Spoil Five." [3]
Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar. Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1879.("Card-Playing and Playing-Cards," December 28, p. 779 )
The Groome-porters lawes, EBBA (#37082)
Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; 13 August 2020.