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Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, [1883], at

p. 236



As Dr Johnson has truly remarked, Shakespeare is "the poet of nature," for "his attention was not confined to the actions of men; he was an exact surveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always some peculiarity, gathered by contemplating things as they really exist. Whether life or nature be his subject, Shakespeare shows plainly that he has seen with his own eyes." So, too, he was in the habit of taking minute observation of the popular notions relating to natural history, so many of which he has introduced into his plays—using them to no small advantage. In numerous cases, also, the peculiarities of certain natural objects have furnished the poet with many excellent metaphors. Thus, in "Richard II." (ii. 3), Bolingbroke speaks of "the caterpillars of the commonweath," and in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 1), the Duke of York's reflection on the destruction of his hopes, is—

"Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud,
 And caterpillars eat my leaves away—"

their destructive powers being familiar.

   Ant.—An ancient name for the ant is "Pismire," probably a Danish word, from paid and myre, signifying such ants as live in hillocks. In "1 Henry IV.," (I. 3), Hotspur says:—

"Why, look you, I am whipp’d and scourged with rods,
 Nettled and stung with pismires, when I hear
 Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke."

   Blue-bottle.—This well-known insect has often been used as a term of reproach. Thus, in "2 Henry IV.," (v. 4), it furnishes an epithet applied by the abusive tongue of Doll Tearsheet, to the beadle who had her in custody. She reviles

p. 237

him as a "blue-bottle rogue," a term, says Mr Patterson, 1 "evidently suggested by the similarity of the colours of his costume to that of the insect."

   Bots.—Our ancestors imagined that poverty or improper food engendered these worms, or that they were the offspring of putrefaction. In "1 King Henry IV.," (ii. 1), one of the carriers says:—"Peas and beans are as dank here as a dog, and that is the next way to give poor jades the bots." And one of the misfortunes of the miserable nag of Petruchio is, ("Taming of the Shrew," iii. 2), "that he is so begnawn with the bots."

   Cricket—The presence of crickets in a house has generally been regarded as a good omen, and said to prognosticate cheerfulness and plenty. Thus, Poins, in answer to the Prince's question in "1 Henry IV.," (ii. 4), "Shall we be merry?" replies, "As merry as crickets." By many of our poets the cricket has been connected with cheerfulness and mirth. Thus, in Milton, "il Penseroso" desires to be—

"Far from all resort of mirth,
 Save the cricket on the hearth."

   It has not always, however, been regarded in the same light, for Gay, in his "Pastoral Dirge," among the rural prognostications of death, gives the following:—

"And shrilling crickets in the chimney cry’d."

   And in Dryden's "Œdipus" occurs the subjoined:—

"Owls, ravens, crickets, seem the watch of death."

   Lady Macbeth, also, (ii. 2), in replying to the question of her husband after the murder of Duncan, says:—

"I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry."

   In "Cymbeline," too, (ii. 2), when Iachimo, at midnight, commences his survey of the chamber where Imogen lies sleeping, his first words refer to the chirping of crickets, rendered all the more audible by the repose which at that moment prevailed throughout the palace:—

"The crickets sing, and man's o’er labour’d sense
 Repairs itself by rest."

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   Gilbert White, in his "History of Selborne," (1853, p. 174), remarks that "it is the housewife's barometer, foretelling her when it will remain; and is prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck, of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companion of her solitary home, it naturally becomes the object of her superstition." 1

   Its supposed keen sense of hearing is referred to in the "Winter's Tale," (ii. 1), by Mamillius, who, on being asked by Hermione to tell a tale, replies:—

           "I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it."

   Frog.—In the "Two Noble Kinsmen," the gaoler's daughter (iii. 4), says:—

"Would I could find a fine frog! he would tell me
 News from all parts o’ the world; then would I make
 A carack of a cockle-shell, and sail
 By east and north-east to the King of Pigmies,
 For he tells fortunes rarely."

   In days gone frogs were extensively used for the purpose of divination. 2*

   Gadfly.—A common name for this fly is the "brize" or "breese," an allusion to which occurs in "Troilus & Cressida," (i. 3), where Nestor, speaking of the sufferings which cattle endure from this insect, says:—

"The herd hath more annoyance by the breese
 Than by the tiger."

   And in "Antony and Cleopatra," (iii. 9), Shakespeare makes the excited Scarus draw a comparison between the effect which this insect produces on a herd of cattle, and the abruptness and sudden frenzy of Cleopatra's retreat from the naval conflict:—

                       "You ribaudred nag of Egypt,
Whom leprosy o’ertake! i’ the midst o’ the fight,
When vantage like a pair of twins appear’d
Both the same, or rather ours the elder,
The breese upon her, like a cow in June,
Hoists sails and flies."

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   It is said that the terror this insect causes in cattle proceeds solely from the alarm occasioned by "a peculiar sound it emits while hovering for the purpose of oviposition." 1

   Lady-bird.—This is used in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 3), as a term of endearment. Lady Capulet having inquired after her daughter Juliet, the nurse replies:—

"I bade her come. What, lamb! What, lady-bird!
 God forbid! Where's this girl! What, Juliet!"

Mr Staunton regards this passage as an exquisite touch of nature. "The old nurse," he says, in her fond garrulity uses 'lady-bird' as a term of endearment; but recollecting its application to a female of loose manners, checks herself—'God forbid!' her darling should prove such a one." Mr Dyce, 2 however, considers this explanation incorrect, and gives the subjoined note:—"The nurse says that she has already bid Juliet come"; she then calls out, "What, lamb! What, lady-bird!" and Juliet not yet making her appearance, she exclaims, "God forbid! Where's this girl?" The words, "God forbid," being properly an ellipsis of "God forbid that any accident should keep her away," but used here merely as an expression of impatience."

   Lizard.—It was a common superstition in the time of Shakespeare that lizards were venomous, a notion which probably originated in their singular form. Hence the lizard's leg was thought a suitable ingredient for the witches’ cauldron in "Macbeth" (iv. 1). Suffolk in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 2), refers to this idea:—

"Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
 Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ stings."

Again in "3 Henry VI." (ii. 2.) Queen Margaret speaks of—

"Venom toads, or lizards’ dreadful stings."

In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1), it is classed with the toad and the owl.

   Moth.—This term, as Mr Patterson remarks in his "Insects mentioned in Shakespeare's Plays" (1841, p. 164), does not

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awaken many pleasing associations. In the minds of most people it stands for an insect either contemptible from its size and inertness, or positively obnoxious from its attacks on many articles of clothing. Thus Shakespeare, he says, employs the expression "moth" to denote something trifling or extremely minute. 1* And in "King John" (iv. 1), we have the touching appeal of Prince Arthur to Hubert, in which for mote he would substitute moth:—

"Arthur. Is there no remedy?
 Hubert. None but to lose your eyes.
 Arthur. O heaven, that there were but a mote in yours,
           A grain, a dust, a gnat, a wandering hair,
           Any annoyance in that precious sense!
           Then feeling what small things are boisterous there,
           Your vile intent must needs seem horrible"

in "Henry V." (iv. 1).

In these two passages, however, the correct reading is probably "mote."

   Serpent.—A term used by our old writers to signify a serpent was "a worm," which is still found in the north of England in the same sense. It is used several times by Shakespeare, as for instance, in "Measure for Measure" (iii. 1), where the Duke, addressing Claudio, says:—

               "Thou’rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm."

This passage also illustrates an error very prevalent in days gone by that the forked tongue of the serpent tribe was their instrument of offence; without any thought of the teeth or fangs which are its real weapons. 2 Again, the "blind-worm" or "slow-worm"—a little snake with very small eyes, falsely supposed to be venomous—is spoken of in "A Mid-summer Night's Dream" (ii. 2), in that charming passage where the fairies are represented as singing to their Queen Titania:—

"You spotted snakes with double tongue,
 Thorn y hedgehogs, be not seen;

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[paragraph continues] Newts and blind-worms do no wrong,
   Come not near our fairy queen."

   In "Macbeth" (iv. 1) one of the ingredients of the witches’ cauldron is—

"Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting."

To quote a further allusion from "Timon of Athens" (iv. 3), Shakespeare speaks of—

"The gilded newt and eyeless venomed worm."

Massinger employs the same term in his "Parliament of Love" (iv. 2)

                       "The sad father
That sees his son stung by a snake to death,
May, with some justice, stay his vengeful hand,
And let the worm escape, than you vouchsafe him
A minute to repent." 1

   There was an old notion that the serpent caused death without pain, a popular fancy which Shakespeare has introduced in his "Antony and Cleopatra" (v. 2):

"Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
 That kills and pains not?"

   The term "worm" was also occasionally used to signify a . "poor creature," as also was the word "snake." Thus, in the "Taming of the Shrew" (v. 2), Katharina says:—

"Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
 My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
 My heart as great, my reason haply more."

So, in "As you Like it" (iv. 3), Rosalind uses snake in the sense of reproach:—"Well, go your way to her, for I see love hath made thee a tame snake."

   The serpent, as the emblem of ingratitude, is alluded to by King Lear (ii. 4), who, referring to his daughter, says how she—

          "Struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart:
All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top!"

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   According to a popular belief, still credited, a poisonous bite could be cured by the blood of the viper which darted the poison. Thus, in "King Richard II." (i. 1), Mowbray says:—

"I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,
 Pierced to the soul with slander's venom’d spear,
 The which no balm can cure but his heart blood
 Which breathed this poison."

   In Cornwall it is still believed that the dead body of a serpent bruised on the wound it has occasioned, is an infallible remedy for its bite. 1 Hence has originated the following rhyme:—

"The beauteous adder hath a sting,
 Yet bears a balsam too."

   The old notion that the snake, in the casting of its slough or skin annually, is supposed to regain new vigour and fresh youth, is alluded to by King Henry ("King Henry V.," iv. 1), who speaks of "With casted slough and fresh legerity"—legerity meaning lightness, nimbleness. In "Twelfth Night" (ii. 5), in the letter which Malvolio finds, there is this passage:—"To inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough and appear fresh." One of the most useful miracles which St Patrick is reported to have performed was his driving the venomous reptiles out of Ireland and forbidding them to return. This tradition is probably alluded to by King Richard (ii. 1):—

                "Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant these rough rug-headed kerns;
Which live like venom where no venom else,
But only they have privilege to live."

The way, we are told, by which the Saint performed this astounding feat of his supernatural power, was by means of a drum. Even spiders, too, runs the legend, were included in this summary process of excommunicating the serpent race. One of the customs, therefore, observed on St Patrick's day is visiting Croagh Patrick. This sacred hill is situated in the county of Mayo, and is said to have been the spot

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chosen by St Patrick for banishing the serpents and other noxious animals into the sea.

   In "Julius Cæsar" (ii. 1), where Brutus says—

"It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
 And that craves wary walking,"

we may compare the popular adage—

"March wind
Wakes the ether (i.e. adder) and blooms the whin." 1

   Spider.—This little creature, which in daily life is little noticed except for its cobweb, the presence of which in a house generally betokens neglect, has, however, an interesting history, being the subject of many a curious legend and quaint superstition. Thus, it has not escaped the all-pervading eye of Shakespeare, who has given us many curious scraps of folk-lore concerning it. In days gone by the web of the common house-spider was much in request for stopping the effusion of blood; and hence, Bottom, in addressing one of his fairy attendants in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (iii. 1) says—"I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you."

   Its medicinal virtues, however, do not end here, for in Sussex 2 it is used in cases of jaundice; many an old doctress prescribing "a live spider rolled up in butter." It is stated, too, that the web is narcotic, and has been administered internally, in certain cases of fever, with success. 3 As a remedy for ague it has been considered most efficacious. Some years ago a lady in the South of Ireland was celebrated far and near for her cure of this disorder. Her remedy was a large house spider taken alive enveloped in treacle or preserve. Of course, the parties were carefully kept in ignorance of what the wonderful remedy was. 4

   According to a universal belief spiders were formerly considered highly venomous; in allusion to which notion

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[paragraph continues] King Richard II. (iii. 2) in saluting the "dear earth" on which he stands, after "late tossing on the breaking seas," accosts it thus—

"Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
 Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous Sense,
 But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
 And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
 Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,
 Which with usurping steps do trample thee."

Again Leontes in the "Winter's Tale" (ii. 1) remarks—

                 "There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d."

   In "Cymbeline" (iv. 2), and "Richard III." (i. 2) Shakespeare classes it with adders and toads; and in the latter play (i. 3) when Queen Margaret is hurling imprecations on her enemies, she is turned from her encounter with Gloucester, by a remark made by the Queen: and while a pitying spirit seems for a minute to supplant her rage, she addresses her successor in these words—

"Poor painted queen, vain flourish of my fortune!
 Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider,
 Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?"

In another part of the same play (iv. 4) the epithet "bottled" is again applied in a similar manner by Queen Elizabeth—

"Thou bottled spider, that foul bunch-back’d toad!"

Ritson on these two passages has the following remarks on the term bottled spider:—"A large, bloated, glossy spider, supposed to contain venom proportionate to its size."

   The origin of the silvery threads of gossamer which are so frequently seen extending from bush to bush was formerly unknown. Spenser, for instance, speaks of them as "scorched dew;" and Thomson in his "Autumn" mentions "the filmy threads of dew evaporate," which probably, says Mr Patterson, 1 refers to the same object. The gossamer is now, however, known to be the production of a minute spider. It is twice mentioned by Shakespeare; but not in connection

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with the little being from which it originates. One of the passages is in "Romeo and Juliet" (ii. 6)—

"A lover may bestride the gossamer
 That idles in the wanton summer air,
 And yet not fall; so light is vanity."

The other occurs in "King Lear" (iv. 6) where Edgar accosts his father, after his supposed leap from that

"Cliff, whose high and bending head
 Looks fearfully on the confined deep."

He says—

"Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
 So many fathom down precipitating,
 Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg."

In each case, it is expressive of extreme lightness. Nares in his "Glossary" (i. 378) considers that the term "gossamer" originally came from the French gossampine, the cotton tree, and is equivalent to cotton wool. He says that it also means any light downy matter, such as the flying seeds of thistles and other plants, and in poetry is not unfrequently used to denote the long floating cobwebs seen in fine weather. In the above passage from "King Lear" he thinks it has the original sense, and in the one from "Romeo and Juliet" probably the last. Some are of opinion that the word is derived from goss, the gorse or furze. 1 In Germany, the popular belief attributes the manufacture of the gossamer to the dwarfs and elves. Of King Oberon, it may be remembered, we are told—

"A rich mantle he did wear,
 Made of tinsel gossamer,
 Bestarred over with a few
 Diamond drops of morning dew."

Hogg, too, introduces it as a vehicle fit for the fairy bands, which he describes as—

          —"Sailing ’mid the golden air
In skiffs of yielding gossamer."

   Toad.—Among the vulgar errors of Shakespeare's day was the belief that the head of the toad contained a stone possessing

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great medicinal virtues. In "As you Like It" (ii. 1) the Duke says—

"Sweet are the uses of adversity,
 Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
 Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."

Lupton in his "One Thousand Notable Things" says that "a toadstone, called Crepaudina, touching any part envenomed by the bite of a rat, wasp, spider, or other venomous beast, ceases the pain and swelling thereof." In the Londesborough Collection is a silver ring of the fifteenth century, in which one of these stones is set. 1

   It was also generally believed that the toad was highly venomous—a notion to which there are constant allusions in Shakespeare's Plays; as, for example, in the above passage (ii. 1), where it is spoken of as "ugly and venomous." In Richard III. (i. 2) Lady Anne says to Gloucester—

"Never hung poison on a fouler toad."

And in another scene (i. 3) Queen Margaret speaks of "that poisonous bunch-back’d toad."

   Once more, in "Titus Andronicus" (iv. 2) the nurse describes Queen Tamora's babe as being "as loathsome as a toad." There is doubtless some truth in this belief, as the following quotation from Mr Frank Buckland's "Curiosities of Natural History" seems to show:—"Toads are generally reported to be poisonous; and this is perfectly true to a certain extent. Like the lizards, they have glands in their skin which secrete a white highly acid fluid, and just behind the head are seen two eminences like split beans; if these be pressed this acid fluid will come out—only let the operator mind that it does not get into his eyes, for it generally comes out with a jet. There are also other glands dispersed through the skin. A dog will never take a toad in his mouth, and the reason is that this glandular secretion burns his tongue and lips. It is also poisonous to the human subject. Mr Blick, surgeon, of Islip, Oxfordshire, tells me that a man once made a wager, when

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half drunk in a village public-house, that he would bite a toad's head off; he did so, but in a few hours his lips, tongue, and throat began to swell in a most alarming way, and he was dangerously ill for some time." 1

   Owing to the supposed highly venomous character of the toad, "Superstition," says Pennant, 2 "gave it preternatural powers, and made it a principal ingredient in the incantations of nocturnal hags." Thus in "Macbeth" (iv. 1) the witch says—

"Toad that under cold stone
 Days and nights has thirty-one,
 Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
 Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot."

Pennant adds that this was intended "for a design of the first consideration, that of raising and bringing before the eyes of Macbeth a hateful second-sight of the prosperity of Banquo's line. This shows the mighty power attributed to this animal by the dealers in the magic art."

The evil spirit, too, has been likened by one of our master bards to the toad, as a semblance of all that is devilish and disgusting ("Paradise Lost," iv. 800):—

                "Him they found,
Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve,
Assaying with all his devilish art to reach
The organs of her fancy."

   In "Macbeth" (i. 1), the paddock or toad is made the name of a familiar spirit:—

"Paddock 3 calls; anon, anon.''

   Wasp.—So easily, we are told, 4 is the wrathful temperament of this insect aroused, that extreme irascibility can scarcely be better expressed than by the term "waspish." It is in this sense that Shakespeare has applied the epithet, "her waspish-headed son," in the "Tempest" (iv. 1), where

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we are told that Cupid is resolved to be a boy outright. Again, in "As You Like It" (iv. 3), Silvius says:—

"I know not the contents; but, as I guess
 By the stern brow and waspish action,
 Which she did use as she was writing of it,
 It bears an angry tenour."

Again, in the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), Petruchio addresses his intended spouse in language not highly complimentary:—

"Pet. Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
 Kath. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
 Pet. My remedy is, then, to pluck it out."

   In the celebrated scene in "Julius Cæsar" (iv. 3), in which the reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius is effected, the word is used in a similar sense:—

"I'll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
 When you are waspish." 1

   Water-Fly.—This little insect which, on a sunny day, may be seen almost on every pool, dimpling the glassy surface of the water, is used as a term of reproach by Shakespeare. Thus, "Hamlet" (v. 2), speaking of Osric, asks Horatio, "Dost know this water-fly?" In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1), Thersites exclaims:—"Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such water-flies, diminutives of nature." Johnson says it is the proper emblem of a busy trifler, because it skips up and down upon the surface of the water, without any apparent purpose.


237:1 "Insects mentioned by Shakspeare," 1841, p. 181.

238:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. pp. 190, 191.

238:2 See Patterson's "Insects mentioned by Shakespeare," 1841, pp. 104, 105.

239:1 "Linnæan Transactions," xv. p. 407; Cf. Virgil's "Georgic III." l. 148

239:2 "Glossary," 1876, p. 238.

240:1 Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 973.

240:2 Cf. "Macbeth" (iii. iv.)

"There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled
 Hath nature that in time will venom breed."

241:1 Worm is used for serpent or viper, in the English Testament of the Geneva version, in Acts xxviii. 4, 5.

242:1 See Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 415;. and Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. p. 270.

243:1 Denham's "Weather Proverbs," 1842.

243:2 "Folk-Lore Record," 1878, i. p. 45.

243:3 See Brand's "Popular Antiquities," iii. pp. 223, 287, 381.

243:4 See Article on "Spider-Lore" in "Graphic," November 13th, 1880.

244:1 "Insects mentioned by Shakespeare," 1841, p. 220.

245:1 See Croker's "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland," edited by T. Wright, 1 862, p. 215.

246:1 See Brand's "Pop Antiq.," ii, pp. 50–55. Douce's "Illustrations of Shakespeare," pp. 181–183.

247:1 See "Notes and Queries," 6th, series v. pp. 32, 173; also Gilbert White's "Natural History of Selborne," Letter xvii.

247:2 "Zoology," 1766, iii. p. 15.

247:3 Cf. "Hamlet," iii. 4, here paddock is used for a toad.

247:4 Patterson's "Insects Mentioned by Shakespeare," 1841, p. 137.

248:1 Cf. "Titus Andronicus," ii. 3; "Henry VIII." iii. 3.

Next: Chapter X. Folk Medicine