‘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.”