"Ulex europaeus." More commonly known as furze.
"Ulex europaeus." More commonly known as furze.
"furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases"- "furzy" refers to a plant common in desolate regions of Europe known as Furze. It can also mean "fuzzy, fluffy" or "fuzzy, indistinct, blurred." The setting is a down, or "open expanse of elevated land," covered in furze, but the last definition suggests that the fuzzy, indistinct landscape mirrors the ambiguous identities of the three strangers. A "coomb" (alternatively, combe or comb) is a "deep hollow or valley," especially present in Southern England, where this story is set. A "ewe-lease" is "a pasture for ewes," ewes being female sheep (OED).

Hardy set his stories and poems in the fictional, rural county of Wessex, which was based on his home-county of Dorset, this story being no exception. The isolation of the pastoral cottage is integral to the plot, as it becomes an attractive shelter for travelers seeking succor from the storm. The isolation, however, also reflects the isolation of the first stranger from both the other guests and, as we find out later, the entire community.

"isolate a Timon or a Nebuchadnezzar" - "Timon" refers to a legendary Athenian citizen who is a primary example of a misanthrope, a person who dislikes the human species and its nature. Shakespeare later wrote a tragedy entitled Timon of Athens based on this man. "Nebuchadnezzar" refers to Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king who is portrayed in the Bible as having gone insane and lived in the wild for seven years. Specifically, Daniel 4:33 details how Nebuchadnezzar "was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle." Hardy uses these two historical examples to emphasize the emptiness that surrounds the shepherd's cottage.

"detached and undefended" - the use of these two adjectives foreshadows a visit to the house by a figure of evil (either the escaped prisoner or the hangman, depending on how you look at it). The house seems to be physically isolated and thus more difficult to be protected by members of the law (although an inept constable is revealed to be a guest at the party).

"cloth-yard shafts of Senlac and Crecy"- "cloth-yard" is a poetic term for the shaft of an arrow (OED). Senlac is an allusion to Senlac Ridge, the hill on which Harold II deployed his men at the Battle of Hastings. Crecy is a location in France of a battle in the Hundred Years' War. Philip V. Allingham observes that the reference of these battles "contrasts the indifferent antagonism of nature, epitomized by the 'level rain-storm,' with the deliberate and intentional inhumanity of man towards man."

Baptismal font used in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany.
"christening" - a ceremony typically conducted at the beginning of one's life. In most denominations of Christianity, it is custom to mark the entrance of an infant into religious life with a baptismal ceremony. The actual ceremony varies from denomination to denomination, but usually involves the application of water (either by sprinkling, pouring, or total immersion) to the infant. During the application of water, the priest or minister affirms the baptism by stating that it is done "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," a phrase used by Jesus in the Bible (specifically, in Matthew 28:19). The christening in the story stands as a contrast to the scheduled execution of the prisoner the next day.

"gauntness" - suggests that the first stranger does not have much food (and hence, wealth). It is later revealed that the prisoner stole a sheep because he and his family were poor and going hungry; at this point, a connection can be made between the similar economic statuses of the first stranger and the prisoner.

"black-coated tribes" - the color black is often used to represent death in literature, art, etc. The first stranger is not actually dressed in black, but Hardy uses the word anyway to hint at his impending doom.

"'But you would hardly have heard of me'" - the first stranger says this line "quickly" so that the inquiring shepherd's wife will not question him any further about his origins. At this point in the story, he is not entirely at ease with the atmosphere of the party and does not wish to have a conversation with someone who is familiar with the area from which he hails.
Pipe used during the nineteenth century.

"'I have dropped it'" - the first stranger tells the shepherd's wife that he has lost his pipe and tobacco box on the road. While this initially seems like a reasonable excuse, in retrospect it is most likely a lie. Pipe smoking was very popular amongst working class men during the early nineteenth century and the most common material from which pipes were made at that time was clay. In contrast, members of the upper classes tended to use snuff tobacco instead. Between the time in which the story is set and the time that Hardy wrote the story, cigars and cigarettes had started to become more popular amongst members of the working class. In this way, the detail of pipe smoking is indicative of the time period in which the story takes place.

"as if he had been specially invited" - the way in which the second stranger hangs his hat shows that he considers himself to be of great importance. It is later revealed that he is a hangman, a fact that evokes fear and intimidation amongst the guests at the party.

"'metheglin'" - a variety of mead that also contains herbs and/or spices. Among the most common additives comprising metheglin are tea leaves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The word "metheglin" is derived from the Welsh word "meddyglyn," which literally translates to "healing liquor."

"'the nature of my trade'" - at this point, it has not been revealed that the second stranger is a hangman, but it is hinted at when he says that the importance of his work is not based in money. Eventually it comes out that he deals in the matter of death.

"Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt
"the guests at Belshazzar's feast" - a reference to an event detailed in the Bible in which the Babylonian king Belshazzar held a banquet and used the sacred goblets that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar years earlier, all the while praising false gods. Suddenly a human hand appeared and began writing words on the palace wall. As described in Daniel 5:8, Belshazzar had all of his men examine the writing on the wall "but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant." Hardy uses this unsettled confusion of the men at Belshazzar's feast as a comparison to the uncertainty of the party guests listening to the hangman's song. The writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast was eventually interpreted by the wise man Daniel as being a prophecy of Belshazzar's impending doom as a result of his lack of humility and reverence to God, and indeed he was killed that night.

"They clinked together" - an ironic scene in that the only person in the room who seems to be fully enjoying the hangman's song about his profession is the very man who he is scheduled to execute the next day. The first stranger demonstrates good will towards the hangman, all the while knowing that the hangman will be unable to carry out his duty the following morning.

"'Circulus, cujus centrum diabolus'"- meaning "the circle whose center is the Devil." In an act that resembles a magic ritual, the party guests form a circle around the hangman and associate him with Satan.

"'we in authority'" - the constable's use of this phrase suggests that he is more interested in gaining prestige amongst his peers than in catching the prisoner. Earlier he makes a point of either repeating or finishing the hangman's sentences (when the hangman is giving orders) in an attempt to establish himself as a person of authority. This action implies that he perceives himself as not yet having the respect of his fellow party guests but hopes to eventually get it.

"'Fath—'" - the constable starts to cite religion in his accusation of the third stranger, but then stops himself and cites royalty. Presumably he believes that royalty is more prestigious and authoritative than religion. Interestingly, there is much less separation of church and state in the United Kingdom than in many other developed nations (such as the United States).

"'not without risk and danger'" - by adding this phrase, the constable is appealing to the officers that what he has done is a noble and respectable deed. He then goes on to say that it was part of his "duty." In that sense, he is bragging about his accomplishments but covering it up with false modesty because he does not wish to appear overly arrogant.

"rase out the written troubles"- a line spoken by Macbeth to a doctor about Lady Macbeth's mental deterioration:

Can'st thou not Minister to a minde diseas'd,
Plucke from the Memory a rooted Sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the Braine,
And with some sweet Obliuious Antidote
Cleanse the stufft bosome, of that perillous stuffe
Which weighes vpon the heart? (5.3.42)

The allusion connects the extremely troubled state of the third stranger with the guilt-wracked Lady Macbeth.


Allingham, Philip V. "The Three Strangers." The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web, 12 Dec. 2000. Web. 20 July 2011.
Chris 73. "Baptismal Font." Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Nov. 2004. Web. 22 July 2011.
"cloth-yard." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 24 July 2011.
"ewe-lease." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 24 July 2011.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984. Print.
Olesachem. "1870 Pipe." Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 July 2011.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Belshazzar's Feast. 1635. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 23 July 2011.
Rogers, Andy. "Furze." Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2008. Web. 22 July 2011.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedie of Macbeth. 3rd ed. July 2000. Project Gutenberg. Web. 24 July 2011.

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