Thou lily-liver’d boy!

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Maya Gharpure wants to know

What does the term lilylivered mean?

A lily-livered person is a coward, easily frightened.

The term lily-livered is one of many vivid expressions we get from Shakespeare. It may not have originated with him, but his use of the term in the much-performed Macbeth ensured it a place in the language.

In Act Five a frightened page rushes onstage to tell Macbeth that 10,000 soldiers are taking up their positions outside his castle. The boy is so terrified that the blood has drained from his face. Realizing that his fate is about to catch up with him, Macbeth attempts to conceal his own terror by lashing out at the boy with a volley of insults directed at the lack of color in his face:

Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,

Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine

Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

Go prick thy face: go cut your face so as to draw some blood to give it color.

Thou lily-liver’d boy: think Easter lily, pure white. Before its functions were understood, the liver was thought to produce blood. A healthy liver would be red, not white. In the theory of “humors,” the liver governed anger and courage. By shouting angrily at the boy, Macbeth is trying to prove that his own liver is red.

those linen cheeks of thine: Macbeth is thinking of white linen.

whey-face: whey is the watery part of milk that accumulates during the making of cheese. The boy’s face is not merely white; it’s a sickly white.

The word patch may also be intended to convey something white as one meaning of patch is “a piece of sticking plaster used to cover and protect a wound or scar.”

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4 thoughts on “Thou lily-liver’d boy!”

  1. Some early 20th century speech utilized “patch” as a synonym for “blanch” or “flinch,” so perhaps the terminology goes back to Shakespeare’s time–either interpretation fits in well with the motif of this phrase.

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