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

p. 466



Although it has been suggested that Shakespeare found but little recreation in fishing, 1* rather considering, as he makes Ursula say in "Much Ado About Nothing" (iii. 1)—

"The pleasant’st angling is to see the fish
 Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
 And greedily devour the treacherous bait,"

and that it would be difficult to illustrate a work on angling with quotations from his writings," the Rev. H. N. Ellacombe, in his interesting papers 2 on "Shakespeare as an Angler," has not only shown the strong probability that he was a lover of this sport, but further adds, that "he may be claimed as the first English poet that wrote of angling with any freedom; and there can be little doubt that he would not have done so if the subject had not been very familiar to him—so familiar, that he could scarcely write without dropping the little hints and unconscious expressions which prove that the subject was not only familiar, but full of pleasant memories to him." His allusions, however, to the folk-lore associated with fishes are very few; but the two or three popular notions and proverbial sayings which he has quoted in connection with them, help to embellish this part of our subject.

   Carp.—This fish was proverbially the most cunning of fishes, and so "Polonius's comparison of his own worldly-wise

p. 467

deceit to the craft required for catching a carp," is most apt ("Hamlet," ii. I) 1

                    "See you now;
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth."

This notion is founded on fact, the brain of the carp being six times as large as the average brain of other fishes.

   Cockle.—The badge of a pilgrim was formerly a cockleshell, which was worn usually in the front of the hat. "The habit," we are told, 2 "being sacred, this served as a protection, and therefore was often assumed as a disguise." The escalop was sometimes used, and either of them was considered as an emblem of the pilgrim's intention to go beyond the sea. Thus in Ophelia's Ballad ("Hamlet," iv. 5, song), the lover is to be known:—

"By his cockle hat and staff,
 And his sandal shoon."

In Peele's "Old Wives’ Tale," 1595, we read, "I will give thee a palmer's staff of ivory, and a scallop shell of beaten gold." Nares, too, quotes from Green's "Never too Late," an account of the pilgrim's dress:—

"A hat of straw, like to a swain,
 Shelter for the sun and rain,
 With a scallop shell before."

   Cuttle.—A foul-mouthed fellow was so called, says Mr Halliwell-Phillipps, 3 because this fish is said to throw out of its mouth, upon certain occasions, an inky and black juice that fouls the water; and as an illustration of its use in this sense, he quotes Doll Tearsheet's words to Pistol, "2 Henry IV." (ii. 4):—"By this wine, I'll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps, an you play the saucy cuttle with me." Dyce says that the context would seem to imply that the term is equivalent to "culter, swaggerer, bully." 4

   Gudgeon.—This being the bait for many of the larger fish, "to swallow a gudgeon," was sometimes used for to be caught or deceived. More commonly, however, the allusion

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is to the easiness with which the gudgeon itself is caught, as in the "Merchant of Venice" (i. 1), where Gratiano says:—

"But fish not, with this melancholy bait,
 For this fool gudgeon."

   Gurnet.—The phrase "soused gurnet" was formerly a well-known term of approach, in allusion to which Falstaff, in "1 Henry IV." (iv. 2), says, "If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet." The gurnet, of which there are several species, was probably thought a very bad and vulgar dish when soused or pickled.

   Loach.—A small fish, known also as "the groundling." The allusion to it by one of the Carriers, in "1 Henry IV." (ii. 1), who says, "Your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a Loach," has much puzzled the commentators. It appears, however, from a passage in Holland's translation of Pliny's "Natural History" (B. ix. c. xlvii), that anciently fishes were supposed to be infested with fleas:—"Last of all some fishes there be which of themselves are given to breed fleas and lice; among which the chalcis, a kind of turgot, is one." Malone suggests that the passage may mean, "breeds fleas as fast as a Loach breeds loaches;" this fish being reckoned a peculiarly prolific fish. It seems probable, however, that the Carrier alludes to one of those fanciful notions as make up a great part of the natural history among the common people. 1 At the present day there is a fisherman's fancy on the Norfolk coast that fish and fleas come together. "Lawk, sir!" said an old fellow, near Cromer, to a correspondent of "Notes and Queries" (Oct. 7th, 1865), "times is as you may look in my flannel-shirt, and scarce see a flea, and then there ain't but a very few herrins; but times that ’ll be right alive with ’em, and then there's sartin to be a sight o’ fish."

   Mr Houghton, writing in the "Academy" (May 27th, 1882), thinks that in the above passage the small river Loach (cobitis barbatula), is the fish intended. He says, "at certain times of the year, chiefly during the summer months, almost all fresh-water fish are liable to be infested with some kind of Epizoa. There are two kinds of parasitic creatures

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which are most commonly seen on various fish caught in the rivers and ponds of this country; and these are the "Argulus foliaceus," a crustacean, and the "Piscicola piscium," a small cylindrical kind of leech."

   Mermaids.—From the earliest ages mermaids have had a legendary existence—the syrens of the ancients evidently belonging to the same remarkable family. The orthodox mermaid is half woman half fish—the fishy half being sometimes depicted as doubly-tailed. Shakespeare frequently makes his characters talk about mermaids, as in the "Comedy of Errors" (iii. 2), where Antipholus of Syracuse says—

"O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
   To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears;
 Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote.
   Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
 And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,
   And in that glorious supposition think
 He gains by death that hath such means to die."

And again, further on he adds—

"I'll stop my ears against the mermaid's song."

   Staunton considers that in these passages the allusion is obviously to the long-current opinion that the syren, or mermaid, decoyed mortals to destruction by the witchery of her songs. This superstition has been charmingly illustrated by Leyden, in his poem, "The Mermaid" (see Scott's "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," iv. 294)—

"Thus, all to soothe the chieftain's woe,
 Far from the maid he loved so dear,
 The song arose, so soft and slow,
 He seem’d her prating sigh to hear.
   *       *       *       *       *

 That sea-maid's form of pearly light,
 Was whiter than the downy spray,
 And round her bosom, heaving bright,
 Her glossy, yellow ringlets play.

 Borne on a foaming crested wave
 She reached amain the bounding prow,
 Then clasping fast the chieftain brave,
 She, plunging, sought the deep below."

p. 470

   This tradition gave rise to a curious custom in the Isle of Man, which, in Waldron's time, was observed on the 24th December, though afterwards on St Stephen's Day. It is said that, once upon a time, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population that she induced, by the enchantment of her sweet voice, numbers to follow her footsteps, till by degrees she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended that the island would be exhausted of its defenders. Fortunately, however, a knight-errant sprang up, who discovered a means of counteracting the charms used by this syren—even laying a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped by taking the form of a wren. Although she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned, on every succeeding New Year's Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definite sentence that she must ultimately perish by human hand. Hence, on the specified anniversary, every effort was made to extirpate the fairy; and the poor wrens were pursued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed without mercy, their feathers being preserved as a charm against shipwreck for one year. At the present day there is no particular time for pursuing the wren; it is captured by boys alone, who keep up the old custom chiefly for amusement. On St Stephen's Day, a band of boys go from door to door with a wren suspended by the legs, in the centre of two hoops crossing each other at right angles, decorated with evergreens and ribbons, singing lines called "Hunt the Wren." 1

   In the "Midsummer Night's Dream" (ii. 1), Oberon speaks of heaving "a mermaid on a dolphin's back;" and in "Hamlet," the queen referring to Ophelia's death, says (iv. 7)—

                  "Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, a while they bore her up."

   In two other passages Shakespeare alludes to this legendary creature. Thus in "3 Henry VI." (iii. 2) Gloucester boasts that he will "drown more sailors than the mermaid

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shall;" and in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 2) Enobarbus relates how—

"Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
 So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
 And made their bends adornings: at the helm
 A seeming mermaid steers."

   In all these cases Shakespeare, 1 as was his wont, made his characters say what they were likely to think, in their several positions and periods of life. It has been suggested, 2 however, that the idea of the mermaid, in some of the passages just quoted, seems more applicable to the syren, especially in the "Midsummer's Night's Dream," where the "mermaid on a dolphin's back" could not easily have been so placed, had she had a fish-like tail instead of legs.

Notices of mermaids are scattered abundantly in books of bygone times. Mermen and mermaids, men of the sea, and women of the sea, having been as "stoutly believed in as the great sea-serpent, and on very much the same kind of evidence." Holinshed gives a detailed account of a merman caught at Oxford, in Suffolk, in the reign of King John. He was kept alive on raw meal and fish for six months, but at last "gledde secretelye to the sea, and was neuer after seene nor heard off." Even in modern times we are told how every now and then a mermaid has made her appearance. Thus, in the "General Magazine" (Jan. 1747), we read—"It is reported from the north of Scotland that some time this month a sea creature, known by the name of mermaid, which has the shape of a human body from the trunk upwards, but below is wholly fish, was carried some miles up the water of Devron." In 1824, 3 a mermaid or merman made its appearance, when, as the papers of that day inform us, "upwards of 150 distinguished fashionables" went to see it.

The sign of the "Mermaid" was a famous tavern, situated in Bread Street. As early as the fifteenth century, we are

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told, it was one of the haunts of the pleasure-seeking Sir John Howard, whose trusty steward records, anno 1464:—"Paid for wyn at the Mermayd in Bred Street, for my mastyr and Syr Nicholas Latimer, xd. ob." In 2603 Sir Walter Raleigh established a Literary Club in this house, amongst its members being Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Selden, Carew, Martin, Doune, &c. It is often alluded to by Beaumont and Fletcher.

   Minnow.—This little fish, from its insignificant character, is used by "Coriolanus" (iii. 1), as a term of contempt, "Hear you this Triton of the minnows?" and again in "Love's Labour's Lost" (i. 1, letter), it occurs, "that base minnow of thy mirth."

   Pike.—An old name for this fish was luce. In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 1), we are told that—

"The luce is the fresh fish."

There can be no doubt, too, that there is in this passage an allusion to the armorial bearings of Shakespeare's old enemy, Sir Thomas Lucy. Amongst the various instances of the use of this term we may quote Isaac Walton, who says" The mighty luce or pike is taken to be the tyrant, as the salmon is the king of the fresh waters." Stow, in his "Survey of London," describes a procession of the Fishmongers’ Company in 1298, as having horses painted like sea-luce—"Then four salmons of silver on foure horses, and after them sixe and fortie armed knightes riding on horses made like luces of the sea."

   Porpoise.—According to sailors the playing of porpoises round a ship is a certain prognostic of a violent gale of wind; hence the allusion in "Pericles" (ii. 1), where one of the fishermen says, speaking of the storm—"Nay, master, said not I as much when I saw the porpus how he bounced and tumbled?" Thus, too, in the "Canterbury Guests, or a Bargain Broken," by Ravenscroft, we read—"My heart begins to leap and play, like a porpice before a storm." And a further reference occurs in Wilsford's "Nature's Secrets"—"Porpoises, or sea-hogs, when observed to sport and chase one another about ships, expect then some stormy weather."

p. 473

   Sea-monster.—The reference in "King Lear" (i. 4), to the "sea-monster:"—

"Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
 More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child
 Than the sea-monster"—

is generally supposed to be the hippopotamus, which, according to Upton, was the hieroglyphical symbol of impiety and ingratitude. 1 Sandys 2 gives a picture said to be portrayed in the porch of the temple of Minerva at Sais, in which is the figure of a river horse, denoting "murder, impudence, violence, and injustice; for they say that he killeth his sire and ravisheth his own dam." His account is no doubt taken from Plutarch's "Isis and Osiris;" and Shakespeare may have read it in Holland's translation (p. 1300), 3* but why he should call the river horse a "sea-monster" is not very clear. It is more likely, however, that the whale is meant.


466:1 See Harting's "Ornithology of Shakespeare," 1871, p. 3.

466:2 "The Antiquary," 1881, iv. p. 193.

467:1 "Antiquary," iv. pp. 193.

467:2 Nares’ "Glossary," i. p. 175.

467:3 "A Handbook Index to the Works of Shakespeare," 1866, p. 119.

467:4 See a Note in Dyce's "Glossary," p. 112.

468:1 Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 518.

470:1 See "British Popular Customs," pp. 494, 495.

471:1 See "Book of Days," ii. pp. 612–614.

471:2 Nares’ "Glossary," ii. 565; see Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, iii. pp. 411-414.

471:3 "History of Sign Boards," 1866, p. 226.

473:1 Wright's Notes to "King Lear," 1877, p. 133.

473:2 "Travels," 1673, p. 305.

473:3 Cf. "King Lear," iv. 2, 48, 49; "Troilus and Cressida," v. 5; "All's Well that Ends Well," iv. 3.

Next: Chapter XXII. Sundry Superstitions