Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Pirates of Penzance

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About the Opera

The Pirates of Penzance

During the initial run of H.M.S. Pinafore, Carte clashed with his backers, and the Comedy Opera Company was dissolved –– with hard feelings on both sides. Carte formed a partnership with Gilbert and Sullivan and the triumvirate went on to produce The Pirates of Penzance. Ever since Pinafore, the company had been distressed by American entrepreneurs who had been producing unauthorized Gilbert and Sullivan operas without paying royalties. Carte decided the best way to solve that problem would be to open their new show in New York rather than London. So the trio came to New York and opened The Pirates of Penzance at the Fifth Avenue Theater on December 31, 1879. The opera opened in London’s Opera Comique the following spring and had a run of 363 performances –– considerably less well received than its predecessor but still a great success.

The story line satirizes the Victorian proclivity toward an excessive devotion to duty, even when such devotion leads to ridiculous actions. This illustrates another Gilbertian brand of humor: the ultimate result of carrying a good thing too far. Sullivan’s music is generally described as a parody of Italian opera, nowhere better illustrated than in the famous number where the pirates belt out “With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal,” as they stomp across the stage.



Even in Gilbert’s time this was a well-known resort town on the southwest tip of England, equivalent perhaps to America’s Cape Cod.


A British army officer of the lowest grade of general officers, ranking just below a lieutenant-general (229). Stone (284) mentions that in the U.S. Army the rank of brigadier general is yet lower than that of major general.


A county in the extreme southwestern corner of England, known for its rocky, picturesque coast.

Act I


A fortified Spanish wine made from grape juice twice fermented. This seems a rather elegant beverage for a band of cut-throats, but it has the virtue of rhyming with merry. Walters (302) suggests that “pirate sherry” may really have been rum. On the other hand, Kravetz (182) and Turnbull (294) think that Gilbert is hinting at what is revealed in the end, which is that the pirates are all noblemen who have gone wrong. Drinking out of glasses is another clue. Kravetz also suggests that their being noblemen explains why they never attack a party weaker than themselves. Not cricket, you know.

Bumper [Let the pirate bumper pass]

A glass or mug so full that, courtesy of surface tension, it bumps up in the middle (56).

’Prentice [For today our pirate ’prentice]
Sketch of Our pirate 'prentice

Apprentice; one bound to a master for a given period to learn a trade or art.

Indenture [Rises from indenture freed]

A service contract. In days of yore, before copy machines changed our lives, contracts were written and signed in duplicate on the same parchment, which was then torn, or cut in a zig-zag line, down the middle, each half going to one of the signers. The indentations could later be used to prove that the two parts belonged together –– which explains how contracts came to be called “indentures.” Isn’t this exciting?

Scent [Strong his arm and keen his scent is]

Samuel is referring to Frederic’s sense of smell, not his lack of personal daintiness. Hyder (161) opines that reference is being made to Frederic’s skill in sniffing out treasure-laden ships.

Scuttling [a keener hand at scuttling a Cunarder or cutting out a P. & O. never shipped a handspike]

Deliberately sinking a ship by knocking holes in her bottom.


A ship of the Cunard fleet, presumably a passenger liner.

Cutting out

To isolate and capture or destroy one ship of a fleet.

P. & O.

A ship of the Peninsular and Oriental line, presumably a passenger liner.

White Star

A well-known steamship line later associated with the ill-fated Titanic. This term is used rather than “P. & O.” in the first night edition (3).

Sketch of a Handspike

A wooden pole used as a lever, usually in a capstan. To ship a handspike means to insert it into the capstan. (A capstan is a reel on a vertical axis, used to pull in lines.)


A person qualified to guide a ship entering or leaving a harbor.

Breakers [on breakers always steering]

Waves distorted by shallow water, as over a reef or close to shore. Read: always making disastrous mistakes.

Hear, hear!

An Englishman’s expression of approval or even approbation. Brewer (55) explains that at one time disapproval of a speaker was indicated by humming. To offset that, those in favor of the speaker cried “Hear him,” which eventually became “Hear, hear!” See also Iolanthe, The Mikado, and The Zoo.

Mercantile navy

The totality of a nation’s ships and seafarers engaged in commerce, more commonly called the merchant marine.

Top of the tide [Well, it’s the top of the tide and we must be off]

High tide. Getting a sailing ship out of port is greatly eased if you wait until the tide is running out, which phenomenon invariably occurs shortly after high tide.

Sally [sally forth]

To set out on a voyage or excursion.


Taking regard of all aspects of a situation. In short, prudent.

Custom House [Can it be Custom House?]

This refers to the customs bureau, charged with collecting import or export taxes. (It is somewhat equivalent to the U.S. or Canadian Coast Guards, but includes on-shore patrols.)

Dower [What is such a dower]

Contribution of wealth (or, in this case, affection) a woman brings to a marriage.

Take heart of grace

Brewer (54) defines this as meaning to pluck up your courage. It may be based on Paul’s teaching that we should rely on God’s grace (His freely granted favors) for strength. Moral courage was at one time believed to reside in the heart (55).

Lowers [Take heart; no danger lowers]

Pronunciation: Rhymes with cowers.


Tether [Free them from their tether]

A rope or chain to keep an animal from getting away. Figuratively: “Give them their freedom.”

Glass [The glass is rising]


Pianissimo [the Girls continue chatter pianissimo]

Very softly.

Homely duty

Domestic life.