+(44) 01691 770165 | info@shakespearecomics.com
Shakespeare Comic Books Linking page to stage

Shakespeare's menagerie 1: the mysterious absence of pigs


There is a serious shortage of pigs in Shakespeare. This terrible fact only became apparent  in the last few months, since we borrowed three from friends to clear brambles and weed from our field. Never having had a great deal to do with the animal before, I found them sociable, intelligent, hardy, playful and affectionate. And having found them delightful creatures, I wondered why they featured so rarely in the plays.

There is of course one very good reason why nobody refers much to pigs, because until the nineteenth century, ‘pig’, from the Old English ‘picq’, designated the young animal, rather than the adult. Mercutio talks of a ‘tithe-pig’s tail’ (a pig being given as a form of tax to the church), Caliban mentions pig-nuts and Llewellyn extols the pig saying, Why, I pray you, is not pig great? The pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations’ – but since he is Welsh he is a figure of fun and talking palpable nonsense, which is only what Shakespeare’s audience would have expected.

Apart from Llewellyn, who was actually talking about Alexander the Great, not pigs at all (though we needn’t go into that here), there are only four other references to pigs in Shakespeare – or seven if you count the hedge-pig in Macbeth, boar-pig in Henry IV part 2 and Caliban’s pig-nuts. Of the rest, two are from Dromio in The Comedy of Errors and two from Shylock.

In other words, not a great deal of pigs. The commonly used words for the adult animal were either ‘swine’ or ‘hog’. Sadly, these make few appearances either. There are fifteen references to swine in the complete plays, nine to hogs and four to sows. That means there are fewer mentions of pigs, swine, hogs or sows than there are plays. This of course is deeply distressing to anybody who loves pigs. It is also surprising, since the animal was ubiquitous in medieval England.

Omnivorous, it was able to live quite happily either in countryside or towns, where it was of great value chomping up waste left in the street. Unlike sheep or cattle that only the more prosperous peasants could afford, virtually everyone could own a few pigs, their salted meat a vital source of protein through the lean winter months.

Perhaps the ubiquity of pigs made them invisible, so much a feature they were barely remarked upon. It is also possible that Shakespeare disdained to mention them because of their lower caste associations. This might have been the case if he’d been the Earl of Oxford, which he wasn’t, or could be a reason why his noble characters barely speak of them, but how come so few of his lower-class characters allude to them when they were an integral part of daily life?

Chaucer was different. In the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner kept ‘pigges bones’ in a glass jar which he sold as holy relics. And when he suggests the Host should kiss the bones because he was the ‘moost enveluped in sinne’, the Host becomes furious and declares,

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
Instead of relikes or of seintuarie.
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;  They shul be shrined in an hogges toord!

No translation is required. Any man proposing to cut off another man’s ‘coillons’ and bury them in an ‘hogges toord’ is clearly not happy.

There is nothing of this verbal energy in Shakespeare regarding pigs, almost all his references to the animal being in connection with their lowliness. In King Lear, Cordelia laments the fact her father was reduced to ‘hovel thee with swine’, while Orlando demands to know of his brother, Oliver,

Shall I keep your hogs and eat husks with them?
What prodigal portion have I spent, that I should come to such penury?

Since pigs were low status creatures, it follows that herding them should have been a low status job, as apparent in the parable of the prodigal son. That unfortunate young man is referred to by Falstaff inHenry IV part 1 when complaining the men he’s recruited for the king’s army are nothing but ‘tattered prodigals latterly come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks’ (‘draff’ being ‘pig swill’, ‘refuse’ or ‘garbage’).

This lowliness is also implied by Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale when he says that tinkers, near the bottom of the social scale, bear a ‘sow-skin budget’ – a ‘budget’ being a leather pouch or wallet. And since it is famously known to be impossible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, one supposes such a pouch to be of inferior quality.

Added to this, there’s a servant in the same play who says, ‘Master, there is three carters, three shepherds, three neat-herds three swine-herds, that have made themselves all men of hair; they call themselves saltiers, and they have a dance which the wenches say is a gallimaufry of gambols’. Even if you didn’t know that ‘the men of hair’ they have turned themselves into are ‘hairy men’ or ‘satyrs’ (and why should you?), you would guess their performance is a ‘gallimaufry’ (a jumble or hodgepodge) because undertaken by carters, swineherds, shepherds and neat (cow)-herds. What else could you expect?

Their dance may have been called a ‘pig’s breakfast’ except that the term as used to mean something unattractive, a muddle or mess wasn’t first recorded until 1933. ‘Pig-headed’ meaning ‘stubborn’ or ‘stupid’ dates from 1647 while expressions such as ‘sexist pig’, ‘chauvinist pig’ or ‘capitalist pig’ are obviously modern – though calling somebody a pig of any sort has never been a compliment. Richard III is denounced by Richmond as ‘this foul swine’ while Queen Margaret calls him ‘Thou elvish-marked abortive rooting hog’ – but since Richard’s personal badge was a boar, he was probably asking for it.

It’s hard to think of any linguistic associations with pigs that aren’t pejorative. ‘Lazy pig’, ‘ugly pig’, ‘greedy pig’, ‘smelly pig’… the list is endless. Most such expressions in Shakespeare identify the animal as either lazy or greedy. In The Taming of the Shrew Lord says of the drunken beggar, ‘How like a swine he lies!’ and in The Two Noble Kinsman Palamon argues that to delay action would be to allow people to think he ‘lay fatting like a swine’.

Lady Macbeth does little to enhance the animals’ image when she tells her husband she’ll induce a ‘swinish sleep’ in Duncan’s grooms with wine and wassail. And as if their PR couldn’t get any worse,Macbeth also associates pigs with witchcraft when the First Weird Sister stirs in the blood of a sow ‘that hath eaten/Her nine farrow – while the Second Weird Sister reports she’s been ‘killing swine’ when asked by the first what she’s been doing with herself of late.

On top of all this, two world religions regard the animal as unclean, a fact touched upon in The Merchant when Launcelot complains, ‘This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs; if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.’
Why pigs are regarded as unclean is open to question, but perhaps simply because they will eat anything, however apparently disgusting. One might have thought this a virtue. It’s precisely because pigs will eat practically anything that they are ideally suited to a peasant economy – nothing is wasted.

For centuries, pigs were a vital part of rural life. Of her childhood in the nineteenth century, Flora Thompson wrote in Lark Rise to Candleford, ‘A good pig fattening in the sty promised a good winter…  The family pig was everybody’s pride and everybody’s business… The children on their way home from school, would fill their arms with sow thistle, dandelion, and choice long grass, or roam along the hedgerows on wet evenings collecting snails in a pail for the pig’s supper.’

Pigs remained important well into last century. A few years before his death in 2002, Alf Davies recorded reminiscences of his Bronygarth childhood in the 1920s. His father was a miner and on the pig-sty wall were two stone carved Celtic heads, now in the British Museum. Of the pig, Alf said, ‘They cut its throat and they drained it out and Mam would be there with a big pan, stirring the blood to stop it curdling. She made black puddings with that, and sausage. We lived like lords for a fortnight.’

The killing of the pigs was not necessarily pleasant. Flora Thompson said it was ‘a noisy, bloody business… but country people of the day had little sympathy for the sufferings of animals.’ Ours went to the local abattoir. It was under half an hour’s drive from home and looked like a jumble of farm buildings. It was only small and our pigs went through together. They didn’t seem distressed and their end would have been swift. I was sorry to see them go, but that was always part of the arrangement.

They were great companions and it felt a privilege to get to know them. Friendly and gregarious, they were rarely away from one another’s company and there were never any serious disputes. It’s true that we only had sows and that a boar amongst them might have been more disruptive, but they were incredibly tough (surviving the coldest spring for fifty years with several feet of snow on the ground for weeks), inquisitive (though mostly because they liked to find out if anything new was edible), and intelligent (on hot days they quickly learnt to upend their bucket of water so as to make a wallow). They were also great softies and loved being scratched, one of them almost instantly rolling onto her side and closing her eyes with pleasure.

Shakespeare was right about almost everything but he was wrong about pigs. Thanks to Colin and Cath Stevens for letting us have them on our land. Three more arrive shortly…

Photos: Kevin Hall


Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing

Join our Mailing List

Sign up to receive our daily email and get 50% off your first purchase.