‘He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon’ is a medieval idiom that Shakespeare refers to twice in his plays.
Its literal meaning is that if you get involved with the Devil you should have the means of keeping your distance. Metaphorically, eating with the Devil is dangerous and you should do it with a long spoon so that you don’t get too close.
It’s a lovely idiom and so true – that if you begin to get involved with bad things you will most likely be drawn in, so if you have to deal with bad people you should keep your distance – be very careful not to be drawn into their bad projects. It’s a wonderful image of someone sitting far away from their sinister eating companion, making sure they don’t get too close by, using a long spoon to take their food. Sharing a meal with someone usually means you are already on quite good terms with them or that you want to get to know them better. If you agree to partake of the Devil’s hospitality, you are on dangerous ground and need to beware.
Origin of ‘He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon’
The idiom was first used in literature by Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Squire’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales (1386)
Who kan sey bet than he? who kan do werse?
Whan he hath al wel seyd, thanne hath he doon;
Therfore bihoveth hire a ful long spoon
That shal ete with a feend,’ thus herde I seye.
Which translates as:
Who can say better than he, who can do worse?
When he had well said, all his good was done.
It well behooves him take a lengthy spoon
Who eats with Devils,’ so I’ve heard folk say.
Supping with the Devil in Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare references the idiom ‘he who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon’ twice in his plays.
In The Comedy of Errors Act 4, Scene 3, Dromio of Syracuse warns his master, Antiophilus of Syracuse, of the danger of accepting the courtesan’s offer of going with her. He says
“Master, if you do, expect spoon-meat; or bespeak a long spoon.”
Dromio asks him what he means and he says
“Marry, he must have a long spoon that must eat with the Devil”.
In TheTempest Act 2, Scene 2, the shipwrecked Stephano and Trinculo encounter Prospero’s slave, Caliban, on the island where they have been thrown up. They are terrified by his appearance and Stephano screams:
“Mercy! mercy! this is a Devil … I will leave him, I have no long spoon.”
Idioms about the Devil
The Devil features prominently in English idioms. Here are some of the main ones:
An idle brain is the Devil’s workshop
Better the Devil you know (a curtailed version of ‘Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t.
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea
The Devil finds work for idle hands
The Devil’s in the detail
The Devil take the hindmost
There will be the Devil to pay
The Devil of a job
The Devil may care
The Devil and the long spoon in novel titles
Numerous novelists have referenced the idiom in the titles of their novels.
Sup with the Devil by Barbara Hamilton
A Long Spoon by Jonathan L Howard
The Long Spoon: He that sups with the devil shall have need of a long spoon by Ebenezer Bean
Not for Greens: He Who Sups with the Devil Should Have a Long Spoon by Ian Plimer
A Long Spoon and the Devil Being Fish Quaint and Queer from the Spoon River, the property of Edgar Lee Masters by Henry Savage
She sups with the Devil by Jake Griffiths
The Devil and the Long Spoon by David Berlinski
Long Spoon Lane by Anne Perry