Honey bee on thistle flower (Photo: John Obermeyer)
William Shakespeare was born in England in 1564 in the village of Stratford-upon- Avon. Many have lauded him as the greatest writer in the English language. The Bard of Avon penned some 38 plays, including comedies such as "Taming of the Shrew." Many of us have seen that play performed in our high schools as Cole Porter's musical adaptation "Kiss Me, Kate." Shakespeare also wrote tragedies such as "Romeo and Juliet" and histories, including "Henry VIII."
Within his comedies, tragedies and histories, Shakespeare mentioned insects over 100 times. Only two of Shakespeare's plays are devoid of insects. So it could be said that the Bard gained some inspiration from the natural history of insects.
Few people would argue that Shakespeare was a serious student of insect biology, as were ancient writers Aristotle and Pliny. Nor was Shakespeare as interested in insects as fellow countryman and natural theologist Erasmus Darwin, who lived a century later. Erasmus, as it turned out, was grandfather to Charles Darwin of natural selection fame.
So it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare's knowledge of insects came from two sources. The first was probably what existed in folklore of his time. The insects that he mentioned were common and would have been familiar to almost everyone of this era.
The second source for Shakespeare's entomological knowledge was likely both contemporary and ancient literature. The Bard was certainly a learned individual. Of course, the notion that both scientists and literary folks build on the discoveries of individuals who preceded them is, in today's lingo, "standard operating procedure."
Jonathan Swift, another British poet, captured the idea in a few lines from his long poem, "On Poetry: A Rhapsody":
"So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em
And so proceeds Ad infinitum."
So what are the insects in the writings of Shakespeare? They are flies. One type of fly mentioned by Shakespeare is the blue bottle. This is a fly that lays eggs on dead animals; its maggots use rotting carcasses as a food source. It was apparently this unsavory biology that prompted Shakespeare to write in "Henry IV" this reference to the blue dress of a beadle: "I will have you as soundly swinged for this, you blue-bottle rogue!" Me thinks this was not intended to be a compliment for blue-robed church officials called beadles, who were tasked with keeping order at services!
The term "bottle" that is applied to some groups of flies is probably a reference to the term "bot," which was once used to describe fly maggots. Many people are familiar with the use of maggots of bottle flies to help pinpoint the time of death in crime-scene, death investigations. Gil Grissom, the fictional, forensic entomologist on the CBS crime drama "CSI," was well known for collecting insects - especially maggots - at a crime scene.
Today, bot is used for flies with maggots that feed in living animal bodies. There are several species of bot flies, and most are specific to a host, such as deer, rabbits, mice and even humans. One of the most common is the cattle bot. Historically, such a fly was called breese, and that is the term used by Shakespeare. In "Troilus and Cressida," he writes: "The herd hath more annoyance by the breese Than by the tiger." Antony's friend Scarus describes Cleopatra's flight after the battle of Actium as "The breese upon her, like a cow in June, Hoists sails and flies." This is in reference to cattle that run with their tails in the air when pestered by bot flies.
Shakespeare also includes fleas, lice, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers in his writing. Locusts, as a food item, are mentioned in "Othello" with the line, "the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts."
Bees, ants and wasps also get included, but it is the industry, social habits and products of the honey bee that are extolled. In "Henry V," for instance, the king and his advisors discuss the merits of a war with Scotland and France at the same time. The argument is that if honey bees can engage in multiple simultaneous activities, then England ought to be able to do so as well.
But the Bard perpetuates a long-standing notion that the leader of the hive is male with the line, "They have a king." On the other hand, he writes about the "lazy, yawning drones" in reference to male honey bees. So Shakespeare was like most of us - figuring out the sex of an insect is not an easy thing to do!