Topical Time
July-August 2000
pp 32-33
He Would Surprise Dr. Watson

Literary Skills of Sherlock Holmes

Ted Friedman

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes quote various renowned personalities in many of his stories. For example, Sherlock Holmes quotes Edgar Allen Poe in two stories.

Edgar Allan Poe
USA - Scott #986
In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes' companion, Dr. Watson, says, "it is simple when you explain. You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist out of stories." Poe is considered to be the father of the modem detective story.

Holmes says in The Case of the Resident Patient, "you remember that some time ago when I read to you that passage in one of Poe's sketches in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thoughts of his companion, you were inclined to treat the matter as a tour de force of the author." Later during investigation of The Cardboard Box, Holmes repeated the same thought to Dr. Watson.

Sherlock Holmes is familiar with the writings of William Shakespeare despite Dr. Watson's assessment that Holmes knowledge of literature is "Nil" (A Study in Scarlet). However, Holmes quoted Shakespeare from 14 of his plays in various cases. One of the most well known expressions [from "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"] is "Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot." This comes from Henry V, act III, scene 1.

Holmes has a habit of rephrasing several Shakespeare quotes such as, "Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just" (Henry IV, part 2 act III, scene 2). In the disappearance of Lady Carfax, Holmes states: "Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just."


William Shakespeare
USA - Scott #1250

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
DDR - Scott #B307
Sherlock Holmes further displays his knowledge of literature when he twice quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in The Sign of Four. Referring to Goethe's first part of Faust ("We are accustomed to seeing man despise what he does not understand"), Holmes says, "Goethe is always pithy." Later in the same story, Holmes quotes Goethe, "Nature alas, made only one being of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue."


Gustave Flaubert
France - Scott #B267
Holmes quoted from a letter from Gustave Flaubert written to George Sand in The Red Headed League. The original quote is "l'Homme n'est Rien l'Oeuvre Tout" (the man is nothing, the work is everything), but Holmes mistakenly renders it as "l'Homme c'est rien l'Oeuvre c'est tout."

George Sand
France - 2004

Dr. Watson's description of the evil villain Charles Augustus Milverton comes directly out of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. It reads, "There was something of Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in the appearance marred only by the insincerity of the fixed smile and by the hard glitter of those restless penetrating eyes."
"The Pickwick Papers" by Dickens
Great Britain - 1970 (Scott #617)


Henry Thoreau
USA - Scott #1327
In The Noble Bachelor, Holmes discussed circumstantial evidence with Dr. Watson. He quoted Henry Thoreau who said, "occasionally very convincing [circumstantial evidence] as when you find a trout in the milk."

Holmes always manages to surprise Dr. Watson with his literary knowledge. In The Study of Scarlet, Holmes quotes Charles Darwin: "It was magnificent. Do you know what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhoods."

Charles Darwin
Great Britain - Scott #968

(The Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stamp in the original article was German Democratic Republic, Scott #1471; The USA Shakespeare was listed as Scott #1216. The Darwin stamp used was the 15½p Scott #965. The George Sand stamp was Scott B316 (listed as B315). The "Pickwick Papers" stamp did not appear in the original article. Stamp illustrations were in black and white.)


see also Ted Friedman's "Music of Sherlock Holmes"

Ted Friedman is a retired university professor of marketing, and a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a worldwide honorary Sherlockian society whose objective is to keep the name of Sherlock Holmes alive and well. His mailing address is 115 Lenox Avenue, Demarest, NJ 07627.

Thanks to Valerie Zwirn for supplying a copy of this article,
and to Peter Burkhart for supplying the source of the "the game's afoot" quotation