Strange Bedfellows

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Such a true statement, but where did it come from? I searched for its origins, and found some very lazy scholars on Google. One said it was “an obscure saying from the nineteenth century.” Surely, we can do better.

Shakespeare is widely credited as the first to create a “bedfellows” phrase. In The Tempest (1611), Act II, Scene 2, the character Trinculo is shipwrecked on an uncharted island. He happens upon Caliban, a deformed and frightening creature, and as the storm renews its fury, he finds himself forced to seek shelter under the creature’s cloak.

“Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

By the early 19th century, variations on the theme had passed into common usage. In a letter of April 27, 1830, Caroline Bowles wrote to Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate, “Hunger makes strange messmates, as well as Poverty ‘strange bedfellows.’”

The first recorded instance of politics entering the equation was on July 9, 1839, when Philip Hone, a former Mayor of New York, wrote this about Martin Van Buren in his diary:

“During the President’s stay in New York he has visited most of the public places in the constant custody of a set of men who are not (unless he has greatly changed) the sort of folks he would have chosen for his associates; but party politics, like poverty, bring men ‘acquainted with strange bedfellows.’”

Five years later, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton delivered a speech with this line:

“Misery, says the proverb, makes strange bedfellows: and political combinations sometimes make them equally strange.”

And in 1870, in My Summer in a Garden, Charles Dudley Warner gave the phrase its contemporary shape:

“I may mention here, since we are on politics, that the Doolittle raspberries had sprawled all over the strawberry-beds: so true it is that politics makes strange bedfellows.”


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