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Shakespeare’s menagerie 2: ten whales, five caterpillars and a rhino


Shakespeare wasn’t right about pigs. But while whizzing through his plays to locate references to swine, sows and hogs and trying to decide if hogs-heads of wine counted as hogs or not, I thought I would see how other animals fared in his work. Twenty six creatures were selected for analysis on a purely subjective basis. Without being mad or risking madness, it wouldn’t have been possible to cover all the others, since it’s said there are mentions of over 600 different species of bird alone in his plays. I don’t know the truth of this, not having counted them. The only one on my list was the eagle, of which there were 37 instances.

Animals were excluded from the list for different reasons. Crabs, for example,  don’t feature because while it’s pretty clear that the roasted crab in the gossip’s bowl described by Puck was a crab apple, it’s less certain whether the crabs referred to by Caliban when he promises to show Stephano and Trinculo ‘where crabs grow’ are a variety of sour apple or a species of marine decapod crustacean. Given this ambiguity, it seemed easier just to ignore them.

Bears were excluded on the grounds that there were too many cup bearers, people bearing news of one sort or another and those of both sexes with beards. Since the search facility couldn’t distinguish between any of the foregoing and the plantigrade mammal of the family ursidae, I decided to dispense with them also. It was bad enough hunting for rats (22 references). In Hamlet I came across several interesting words of which rat was a component, such as ‘implorators’ and ‘ratifiers’, but also 202 instances of ‘Horatio’ which slowed the search down considerably.

Some figures are distorted. There are 145 lions, but 30 of these are accounted for by Snug’s role as Lion inPyramus and Thisbe. Similarly, the number of boars is almost doubled by Richard III, since the boar was his personal badge (accounting for 11 out of 23 references). Somewhat arbitrarily, the Boar’s Head tavern was excluded from this count, which seems particularly unfair since there is a celebrated pub of that name in Oswestry (and probably many other towns up and down the country).

But this list was never meant to be scientific. Of the animals on it, a few were exotic (25 tigers, 10 whales, 8 elephants, 7 dolphins, 5 crocodiles, 1 alligator and a rhinoceros), while most are familiar and domestic. Many of the animals have emblematic qualities, so foxes (of which there are 38 mentions) are generally cunning or stealthy; wolves (54) are rapacious, while goats (15) and monkeys (14) are associated with lechery – and not just by Othello. Although I have never seen a renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with a goat tethered to her ankle, she was frequently depicted with a monkey chained to her leg to indicate she had shackled her lustful nature.

The Bible and the bad press it gives to serpents may have accounted for their relatively high score of 33, though none are positive. Antony and Cleopatraaccounts for seven of these references, and her relationship with snakes was at best unfortunate.

The Christian tradition with its imagery surrounding Christ the shepherd, Lamb of God, congregations as flocks etc. may have boosted the numbers of sheep (62) and lambs (47) that feature in the plays, but it could also reflect their economic importance to medieval Europe. Although sheep evolved over the dusty plains of the Middle East (with consequent tendency to foot rot on our wet hillsides), by the 1300s the wool trade was driving England’s wealth. Huge churches were built in East Anglia, as much to glorify the power of their patrons as to the glory of God, while newly enriched peasants such as the Pastons of Norfolk helped erode the old feudal hierarchy. (As it happens, the wife of a fifteenth century John Paston was probably related to Sir John Fastolf, thought to be inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff).

Although not the engines of such wealth, medieval agriculture was powered by oxen, and they along with cows, cattle and kine receive 39 mentions. This is still more than the lamentable 37 given to pigs, swine, hogs and sows, though considerably ahead of 7 for the humble chicken. Of the rest, there were 49 cats, 19 mice and 5 caterpillars.

Based on the list of animals for which I searched, it’s hard to spot any patterns in Shakespeare’s plays. The comedies average 10 different animals per play, the histories 11.3 and tragedies 12.4. Similar results are to be found depending on when the plays were written. The early plays (1589-97) averaged 10.5, those from the mid-period (1598-1605) 11.7 while late plays (1606-14) score 11.6.

Predictably enough, therefore, an early comedy has the lowest number of animals mentioned in a play. That’s the The Comedy of Errors (1593-4) with only six different creatures referred to, but this abysmal record is equalled by Richard II (1595-6), Measure for Measure (1603-4), Pericles (1608-9) and The Winter’s Tale (1610-11). King Lear is a definite winner with 18 animals referenced (Coriolanus comes in second with 16), but it’s hard to draw conclusions as you only find what you’re looking for. The Tempest, for example, is brimming with wildlife including marmosets, barnacles, scamels, bees, moles and perhaps crabs, though none of those  were on the list. Similarly, The Winter’s Talewould have been lifted from its ignominious shared bottom place if bears had been included, containing as it does the most famous stage note of all time, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’

It’s not too surprising that horses should top the list with 350 references. In part this is because they were high status animals, associated with the nobility. When Macbeth destroys the natural order by murdering Duncan, one manifestation of this abnormal state is that the old king’s horses,

Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race

Turned wild in nature as they would

Make war with mankind.

Another, more prosaic reason for the high horse count is simply that they were the means by which people were conveyed around. Thus Richard III scores three easy horse points during the Battle of Bosworth when he cries, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’

Dogs came in second on the list with 205 mentions. Again, this is not surprising, since dogs were everywhere in medieval society. Though as Macbeth pointed out to the murderers he enlists, not all dogs were equal.

 Hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,

Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept

All by the name of dogs.

In other words, there were dogs and dogs. At the noble end were the hunting dogs, prized like Theseus’ hounds, ‘so flewed, so sanded’ their heads hung ‘with ears that sweep away the morning dew.’ At the other are the curs and mongrels, the ‘demi-wolves’ that snarl and scavenge. When Mark Antony cries havoc and lets slip ‘the dogs of war’ he is not releasing docile, house-trained pooches but the rabid, sharp-fanged creatures of nightmare. Shakespeare, incidentally, uses the word ‘creature’ 116 times in his work (mostly to describe humans, as in ‘fair creature’), but only employs the word ‘animal’ 8 times – while ‘beast’ turns in a creditable score of 104.

Although the globe was becoming explored in Shakespeare’s time, most of it was unknown territory harbouring peculiar creatures of all kinds. In a world in which fabulous and improbable animals such as the narwhal, giraffe and rhino were known to exist, it must have been easy to accept the reality of less plausible creatures, such as the phoenix, centaurs, satyrs, cockatrices and dragons – all of which crop up somewhere in his work.

There are no giraffes or narwhals in Shakespeare, but the animals were known about and narwhal tusks had been traded since Viking times. Queen Elizabeth, it seems, was presented with a carved and bejewelled tusk said to have been worth £10,000. At the time that money was enough to buy you a castle, so somebody must have liked her very much.

A widespread belief in medieval times was that the narwhal tusk in fact came from a unicorn. In many ways it must have been easier to believe in the existence of a horse with a single horn growing from its head than a blubbery creature living in the cold waters of the Arctic able to grow a spiral tooth more than three metres long. Apart from which, unicorns look better on a coat of arms.

So any conclusions? Not really, except that Shakespeare’s observation of animals was as quick and acute as his perception of people. He knew their natures, so that when Falstaff says ‘I do here walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one,’ it’s a simile striking in its unexpectedness. It’s also reflects Shakespeare’s knowledge of natural life, since sows have a tendency to roll onto their piglets and suffocate them (hence the fact that intensively farmed pigs are forced into farrowing crates before they give birth, to restrict their movement).

In an equally telling image Antonio assures Sebastian that when they have killed Alonso and Gonzago their followers will be readily won over, taking ‘suggestion as a cat laps milk.’ It’s a wonderfully domestic picture to express the cynical realities of power. In that one phrase he has captured the essence of cat and corruptible humanity. I think of it every time I see our cat lapping at her bowl. Pigs excepted, Shakespeare gets things right. That’s why he’s Shakespeare.

An appendix showing what animals feature in which of Shakespeare’s plays is to be found in the Blog section of www.shakespearecomics.com


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