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Tuatara: Volume 1, Issue 2, May 1948

Shakespearean Entomology

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Shakespearean Entomology

Shakespeare frequently drew upon the insect world for material in his portrayals. This practice of seeking inspiration in the field of natural history is by no means peculiar to the age of literature; it was practised in the dim past when co-ordinated human thought and langauge were formulated; indeed, it still remains a feature of uncultured races, existing, as they do, in surroundings where a knowledge of natural phenomena and of human nature is of real necessity, and so more profound than the average among cultured peoples. Such knowledge, having passed into folklore, has infiltrated the every-day life of the most enlightened; Shakespeare was no exception; neither were the authors of the ancient classics; on the other hand, Shakespeare added nothing to the basic facts, but such observers as Aristotle and Pliny did.

As far as I can see, Shakespeare's entomological knowledge was primarily that of well informed people in his time, enhanced by an unusual flair for sifting and using information gathered directly from others and from the classics; his knowledge of the subject was profound only in so far as his scholastic needs demanded. Some indication of the entomological standards in Shakespeare's time can be had from the writings of the physician Moufet (Moffett) who was a contemporary of Shakespeare; I have an idea (which requires confirmation) that this Moufet was a colleague of Shakespeare.

I have made no thorough search of Shakespeare's writings, but have located one hundred odd references to insects; these are found in all but two works—The Tragedy of King Richard III and Pericles; his poems were not searched; that the subject is exhausted is not pretended, but the material gathered is sufficient for this precis.

An analysis of the available data shows the distribution of them; the number in brackets indicate the number of references located:

Henry IV (9); A Midsummer-Night's Dream (8); Henry VI (7); Hamlet (7); Henry V (6); Tempest (6); Troilus and Cressida (5); Cymbeline (5); Antony and Cleopatra (5); Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Coriolanus (4 each); Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale and Othello (3 each); Henry VIII, Merchant of Venice, All's Well that Ends Well, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, King Richard II, Measure for Measure and Macbeth (2 each); Love's Labour Lost, Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens, Much Ado About Nothing and King John (1 each).

There are not many kinds of insects referred to, and all are species with which everyone is familiar. The references are apparently in the page 8 following order of frequency: bees and wasps; butterflies, moths and caterpillars; flies and maggots; beetles, crickets and grasshoppers; gnat, flea, ant, louse, gad-fly, bot, water-fly and locust. The most convenient way of illustrating the subjects is to cite a few cases, and arrange them under a general insect grouping.

Bees, Wasps and Ants

Shakespeare makes frequent use of the industry, social organisation, habits and products of the honey-bee. All these attributes are ably summed in the biological discourse between Westmoreland, Exeter and the Archbishop of Canterbury; the theme was the defence of England against “the weasel Scot” who would suck “her princely eggs” (a fear that has come to pass, by all accounts!); the passage in question is that where the Archbishop says, “for so work the honey-bees” to “the lazy yawning drone.” (Henry V; i. 2. 187-204). In this passage it is stated that “They have a king,” which reveals a common error of the times when the queen's true position in the hive was doubtless unknown; it is found again in “Led by their master in the flower'd fields” (Titus Andronicus; v. 1. 15); Virgil has the same statement—“from thence the Insect King” (Georgics Book 4).

Shakespeare vividly pictures the upheavals caused by the loss of the bee leader; it is when reporting the murder of Duke Humphrey by Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort, Warwick exclaims:

The commons, like an angry hive of bees

That want their leader, scatter up and down, And care not who they sting in his revenge (2 Henry VI; iii. 2. 125-127).

The same thought lies in Virgil's lines:, Their King surviving, all Unanimous concur; his death dissolves Society. (Georgics Book 4.)

Following another popular fallacy, King Henry states:

'Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb

In the dead carrion. (2 Henry IV; iv. 4. 79-80.)

In this perhaps Shakespeare had in mind Samson (Judges 14:8-9), or Virgil's:

Which by the Arcadian shepherd was disclosed

How, oft, from putrid gore of cattle slain

Bees have been bred. (Georgics Book 4.)

The insects mistaken for bees were doubtless one of the carrion-breeding hover-flies, called drone-flies from their resemblance to drone bees, and in being stingless; of course, there would be many blowflies also, as indicated later in the same passage by Virgil: “small animals, in clusters, thick are seen, short of their legs at first.”

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It was formerly thought that bees collected their wax from the flowers visited, and on this King Henry says, “Our thighs packed with wax, our mouths with honey”; (2 Henry IV; iv. 5. 75). Also, there are many apt passages on honey and the gathering of it:

King Henry. Thus we may gather honey from the weed,

And make a moral of the devil himself.

Henry V; iv. 1. 11-12).

Friar Laurence. Which, as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey Is loathsome in his own deliciousness.

(Romeo and Juliet; ii. 6. 11-12.)

Brutus. Boy! Lucius! Fast asleep? It is no matter;

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.

(Julius Caesar; ii. 1. 229-230).

Turning to the stinging of bees, we find a delightful irony when Cassius and Brutus taunt Antony:

Cassius. Antony,

The posture of your blows are yet unknown;

But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees,

And leave them honeyless.

Antony. Not stingless too.

Brutus. O! yes, and soundless too;

For you have stol'n their buzzing, Antony.

And very wisely threat before you sting.

(Julius Caesar, v. 1. 32-38.)

Humble-bees are also specifically mentioned; for example, “Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing” (Troilus and Cressida; v. 10.42), and “No, no, no; your son was misled with a snipt-taffeta fellow there,” and he would have been “more advanced by the king than by that redtailed humble-bee I speak of” (All's Well; iv. 5. 1-7); again, “Mounsieur Cobweb, good mounsieur, get your weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag” (Midsummer-Night's Dream; iv. 1. 10-13).

That Shakespeare should seek inspiration from bees more often than from any other insects, is to be understood; their social organisation offers such excellent material. On the other hand, he but rarely refers to the equally organised ant, possibly because much more was known of bees at that time, than of ants. As far as I know, Shakespeare uses the ant on three occasions only, as follows; the first citation is reminiscent of Solomon, though in the words of a fool:

(1) We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee there's no labouring i' the winter. (King Lear, ii. 4. 68-69).

(2) sometimes he angers me

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With telling me of the moldwarp and the ant.

(I Henry IV; iii. 1. 147-148.)

(3) Why, look you, I am whipp'd and scourg'd with rods,

Nettled, and stung with pismires, when I hear

Of this vile politician Bolingbroke.

(I Henry IV; iii. 1. 147-148.)

Such troublesome creatures as the stinging wasps were also good pabulum for Shakespeare on occasion; he made full use of the opportunity in the following domestic affair:

Petruchio. Come, come you wasp; i' faith you are too angry.

Katharina. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

Petruchio. My remedy is, then, to pluck it out.

Katharina. Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.

Petruchio. Who knows not where a wasp does wear its sting?

(Taming of the Shrew; ii. 1. 210-214.)

Petruchio's last retort recalls the physician Moufet (contemporary of Shakespeare) on the subject of stings. It was on the question raised by Aristophanes, the Attic comedian, in his “Clouds” where Chaerophon asks the philosopher Socrates whether the buzz of the mosquito issued from the mouth or the tail; dwelling on this Moufet naively opined that the organ of sound lies in the mouth and not the tail, because the buzz is more pronounced when the insect approaches than when it departs!

Butterflies and Moths, and Caterpillars

Moths and butterflies are used frequently by Shakespeare: “all the yarn she spun on Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths” (Coriolanus; i. 3. 92-93); “there is a difference between a grub and a butterfly; yet your butterfly was a grub” (l.c. v. 4. 12-13); “than boys pursuing summer butterflies, or butchers killing flies” (l. c. iv. 6. 93-95); “and laugh at gilded butterflies” (King Lear; v. 3. 12-13); while the fluttering evasive butterfly can be seen in the following:

I'll swear 'tis a very pretty boy. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it, he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and up again; catched it again; (Coriolanus; i. 3. 62-69).

Further, what can be more picturesque in its acrid piquancy than Bolingbroke's reference to the enemies of the realm?

The caterpillars of the commonwealth,

Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.

(Richard II; ii. 3. 166-167.)

Also the Servant:

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,

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Her fruit trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd,

Her knots disorder'd, and her wholesome herbs Swarming with caterpillars? (l. c. iii. 4. 43-47.)

Flies and Maggots, Fleas and Lice

It is to be expected that such common insects as the blowfly (and its maggots), the gnat, gadfly, fleas and lice did not escape the Bard's attention.

Thus the delightfully droll Doll Tearsheet loses none of her picturesque fluency in reference to the blue dress of a beadle:

I'll tell thee what, thou thin man in a censer, I will have

you as soundly swinged for this, you blue-bottle rogue!

(2 Henry IV; v. 4. 20-24.)

Among other uses there are also the following: “these summer flies have blown me full of maggot ostentation” (Love's Labour's Lost; v. 2. 409-410); “for if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog” (Hamlet; ii. 2. 183-184).

The blood-sucking gadfly (breese) is cleverly played on by Nestor in his reference to the structural weakness of ships of the fleet:

The herd hath more annoyance by the breese

Than by the tiger. (Troilus and Cressida; i. 3. 48-49.)

We find the same insect when Antony's friend Scarus forcefully speaks of Cleopatra's flight after the battle of Actium:

Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt,

Whom leprosy o'ertake! i' the midst o' the fight,

The breese upon her, like a cow in June,

Hoists sails and flies. (Antony and Cleopatra; iii. 8. 20-25.)

just as a beast literally hoists its tail and stampedes in the presence of the gadflies. This recalls the Grecian goddess Io, who, having been transformed to a cow, was chased over the face of the earth by a gadfly; Virgil (Georgics Book 3) refers to Io's plight in a passage dealing with the fear inspired in herds by the fly:

An insect (Oestrus by the Greeks, by the Romans

'Tis named Asilus) harsh with humming noise

It flies; by which affrighted from the woods

The herds all run;

This pest of old, to glut her vengeful ire,

Stern Juno to Inachian Io sent.

There is some difference of opinion on what insect was originally named Oestrus, but there is no room to deal with the subject here; today the term is applied to botflies, which brings us back to Shakespeare and his usage of them: “peas and beans are as dank here as a page 12 dog, and that is the next way to give poor jades the bots” (I Henry IV; ii. 1. 9-11); Petruchio's horse was “begnawn with bots” (Taming of the Shrew; iii. 2. 5-7).

Of other irksome insects there are the gnats: “when the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport” (Comedy of Errors; ii. 2. 30); “lie graveless, till flies and gnats of Nile have buried them for prey!” (Antony and Cleopatra; iii. 11. 166-167); “the common people swarm like summer flies; and whither fly the gnats but to the sun?” (3 Henry VI, ii. 6. 8-9.)

Apropos fleas and lice: “Do you not remember a' saw a flea stick upon Bardolph's nose, and a' said it was a black soul burning in hell-fire?” (Henry V; ii. 3. 42-44); “I think this to be the most villanous house in all London road for fleas; I am stung like a tench”, and, “your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach”, (1 Henry IV; ii. 1. 15-17, and 23); while on the face of it, “the dozen white louses do become an old coat well” (Merry Wives of Windsor; i. 1. 19-20), seems to refer to lice as a play on “luce”.

In passing at this point, we should note the word “bug”, which occurs in The Winter's Tale; iii. 2. 93 and in 3 Henry VI; v. 2. 2.; it is defined in the glossary as “an object of fear”, so “bug-bear” is doubtless what we would say with no entomological trend.

Beetles, Crickets, Grasshoppers and Locusts

I fear but little space remains. However, there are not many occasions when these insects appear in Shakespeare's works, but, “beetles black, approach not near”, (Midsummer-Night's Dream; ii. 2. 22); “the shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums”, (Macbeth; iii. 2. 42); “shall we find the sharded beetle in a safer hold than is the full-wing'd eagle” (Cymbeline; iii. 3. 19-21); “and the poor beetle, that we tread upon” (Measure for Measure, iii. 1. 77); “all the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!” (Tempest; i. 2. 339-340).

Of crickets, locusts and grasshoppers: “as merry as crickets, my lad” (1 Henry IV; ii. 4. 101); “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry (Macbeth, ii. 2. 27); “I will tell it softly; yond crickets shall not hear it” (Winter's Tale; ii. 1 29-30); “the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts” (Othello; i. 3. 354); and:

Her waggon spokes made of long spinners' legs;

The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
The traces, of the smallest spider's web;
The collars, of the moonshine's watery beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat.

(Romeo and Juliet; i. 4. 60-65.)