When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1
Hurly Burly (noun)
A rout, riot, bustle or confusion. Also hurly-burly, meaning “commotion, tumult,” 1530s, apparently an alteration of phrase hurling and burling, and a reduplication of 14c. hurling. Shakespeare has hurly “tumult, uproar,” and Hurling time (early 15c.) was the name applied by chroniclers to the period of tumult and commotion around Wat Tyler’s rebellion. Scott (1814) has hurly-house “large house in a state of advanced disrepair.” Comparison also has been made to dialectal Swedish hurra “whirl round.”
To find some examples of various hurly burlies, or hurly burli, as the case may be, I looked no further than my favorite caricaturist, James Gillray.
This drawing features the Duke of Grafton, General Conway, and Lord Shelburne. After the death of the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord Shelburne was appointed First Lord of the Treasury. Opposition members such as Charles Fox, Edmund Burke, and Lord Cavendish quit their offices, banking that the Duke of Grafton (newly appointed Lord Privy Seal) and General Conway would exit as well. They were disappointed, and all began to draw blood via ink in the papers as they attacked each other “personally and with much bitterness.” General Conway supported the new First Lord of the Treasury, leading Burke to compare the General to Little Red Riding Hood (hinting the General was mistaking a wolf for a friend). Gillray drew the General as blinded by trickery, being led about by the double-faced Premier. Lord Shelburne’s character preens:
Huzza! my friends — huzza — the Monster’s dead, and we
Full-merrily will dance, around his fatal Tree
Honours thick falling, shall our steps attend,
Come where I lead — to Glory we’ll ascend.
The remaining members of the new Cabinet are represented as rats, for their alleged desertion of principles and party. Quite the political hurly burly.
Politicians here ride the crazy new merry-go-round that is precariously kept in place by three small blocks labeled “Treasury,” “Navy,” and “Army.” From right to left, Fox leads the pack with a large bag of money; next rides Lord North, his mount cut off at the knees and his head losing its wig; Burke follows as a Jesuit priest, his skeletal leg representing the austerity measures in his calls for economic reform; Augustus Keppel shows next, dressed in naval uniform and seated on a sleeping donkey, saying:
Dam’d rough Sailing this, I shall never be able to keep my Seat till the 27th July
The last man on the carousel is likely Lord Stormon, President of the Privy Council at the time and looking for all practical purposes as if he’s seated on an actual privy, with his bare knees and crossed hands over his crotch. The clock shows 12:15, and two men relieve “Poor John Bull” of his possessions in full light of day, as the character on the ground by the merry-go-round sings, “Tis Liberty, Tis Liberty, Dear Liberty alone.” Yes, they are liberating Mr. Bull of a large haul. The action-filled picture is a veritable hurly burly, tilt-a-whirly.
Leaving parliamentary politics behind, we descend or ascend, depending on your perspective, into the world of societal politics. Lady Archer has just won an obscene amount of money, thoroughly shocking the group of men and women gathered around the table. We can identify Lady Archer by the unflattering traits designed to direct our thoughts to her immorality and vice: rouged cheeks for vanity, hooked nose for ugliness and old age, unembellished and somewhat masculine attire for a lack of feminine behavior. Even the superscription – The Knave wins all – declares her a masculine usurper. Though society was often a sea of people churning with debauchery, corruption, and greed, Lady Archer surpasses all. The caption following the title removes all doubt:
To those earthly Divinities who charmed 20 years ago, this honourable method of banishing mortifying reflections is dedicated. O Woman! Woman! Everlasting is your power over us, for in youth you charm away our Hearts, and in your after-years you charm away our Purses.
Gillray reveals that feminine wiles of youth and beauty charm gentlemen; the weapon wielded by women of a certain age, that talent for emptying pockets, is decidedly horrifying. Ye olde turning of the tables, hurly burly.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and the Online Etymological Dictionary.
- Information on the above works by James Gillray taken from Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray: Comprising a Political and Humorous History of the Latter Part of the Reign of George the Third, by Thomas Wright and R.H. Evans.