There were several words in Shakespeare’s vocabulary that have either disappeared from the modern language or are very rarely used. ‘Orisons’ is one of those lost words. If you look it up in a dictionary you will find that it means ‘prayers,’ and even the Oxford English Dictionary has very little to say about it. However, no two English words have exactly the same meaning or there would be no need for more than one of them. In Modern English there seems to be no need for more than one word for prayers, although we still use the word ‘devotions’ which means a bit more than prayers – ie. the activities surrounding the act of praying. But there must have been a difference in Shakespeare’s time, even if very small: it is typical of Shakespeare that he should explore the nuances of words and use all the echoes, suggestions and inferences of words in his texts, always finding the right word. Moreover, his audience would have got it. We, the modern audience, are unaware of those subtleties because we have lost that word from our everyday language.
Shakespeare used the words ‘prayers’ and ‘devotions’ countless times in his plays but on five occasions he chose to use ‘orisons.’ One may, therefore, gain a better understanding of the word by looking at how he used it those five times.
But, incidentally, modern poets still use obsolete words to create certain effects. In his poem Anthem for Doomed Youth Wilfred Owen opens the poem with:
‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.’
He makes the choice of that word for several poetic reasons. In the third line he uses the sound and meaning of the words to imitate the staccato sound of machine guns, which carries into the fourth line with ‘patter’ and then the three-syllable word ‘orisons’ instead of ‘prayers.’ ‘Prayers’ would not have fitted in there – far too soft, only one syllable, and not appropriate for the rhyme scheme. You can see, ‘cattle’ and ‘rattle’ and then, ‘orisons,’ half rhyming with ‘of the guns,’ as well as fitting in with the metre of ‘of the guns.’ And so ‘orisons’ is the perfect choice. And in this case, meaning exactly the same as ‘prayers.’
However, when Shakespeare chooses to use ‘orisons’ in the five instances he does, he does not intend it to mean exactly the same as ‘prayers.’ Here they are:
In Cymbeline 1:3 Imogen says:
‘I did not take my leave of him, but had
Most pretty things to say: ere I could tell him
How I would think on him at certain hours
Such thoughts and such, or I could make him swear
The shes of Italy should not betray
Mine interest and his honour, or have charged him,
At the sixth hour of morn, at noon, at midnight,
To encounter me with orisons, for then
I am in heaven for him; or ere I could
Give him that parting kiss which I had set
Betwixt two charming words, comes in my father
And like the tyrannous breathing of the north
Shakes all our buds from growing.’
In Hamlet, III:1 Hamlet says:
‘Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.’
In Henry V, II:2, Henry says:
‘Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!’
In Romeo and Juliet IV:3 Juliet says:
‘Ay, those attires are best: but, gentle nurse,
I pray thee, leave me to myself to-night,
For I have need of many orisons
To move the heavens to smile upon my state,
Which, well thou know’st, is cross, and full of sin.’
In Henry VI Part III, 1:4, Queen Margaret says:
‘Nay, stay; lets hear the orisons he makes.’
In the above instances ‘orisons’ does indeed mean ‘prayers’ but in four of the five cases the speaker is referring ironically to prayers. Shakespeare never uses the word ‘prayers’ ironically but in those instances ‘orisons’ is ironic. Juliet, for example, tells the nurse to leave her alone so – as she says – to pray before embarking on her marriage to Paris. In reality, her mind is very far from a wish to pray: she wants to be left alone to take the potion that will put her into a death-like sleep so that she can be united with her true lover, Romeo. And she uses the word ‘orisons.’
Queen Margaret says she wants to hear the Duke of York’s prayers. She’s not in the slightest bit interested in his prayers. He’s her prisoner and she is enjoying taunting him, subjecting him to unbearable humiliation, and the mention of his prayers is part of that – her expressed wish to hear his prayers is ironic and she refers to them as orisons.
King Henry V is mocking Sir Thomas Grey, who has professed pious loyalty to the king while plotting to assassinate him.
In all these cases Shakespeare is using ‘orisons’ ironically. In Hamlet, the word order, syntax and metre offer clues to why Shakespeare uses ‘orisons’ rather than ‘prayers’ or ‘devotions.’
‘Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.’
He starts with the single word, ‘nymph’ and brings in ‘orisons’ early in the statement, and places ‘remembered’ at the end, in an unusual position, considering he’s asking her to remember his sins in her prayers. It’s an erratic and tortured syntax that reflects his state of mind, which is close to a nervous breakdown. And ‘all’ my sins, asking her to remember all his sins while accusing her of sinning herself. He calls her the ‘fair’ Ophelia, beginning his comments to her gently, but then becoming quite bitter and biting, using the word ‘orisons’ sarcastically. And he abandons the iambic pentameter in those two lines, again reflecting the disorder of his mind.
And so, in order to discover the meaning of the word ‘orisons’ we have to go beyond dictionary definitions and look at the relationship between the playwright and his audience and see what he is conveying to them with his choice of words.