William Shakespeare uses the word “basilisk” in Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI, in Henry IV Part 1, as well as in Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry V, and a Winter’s Tale.
The references themselves are not incredibly descriptive, but demonstrate that his audience had an understanding both of what a basilisk was, and how it operated.
What is a basilisk?
The basilisk itself was firmly established in popular lore, with a history that preceded Shakespeare himself. In fact, by the time Shakespeare was penning his own references to the basilisk, modern thought had moved largely away from thinking the basilisk was a real creature, decided the basilisk was, in fact, not a real creature, but was hugely popular among artists anyway for it’s persistent reputation as a monster.
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The basilisk began in ancient Greece where it was thought of as mostly a dragon like creature, with wings and the head of a snake. St. Hildegard wrote about the basilisk in the 1100s, describing it as a creature born from an egg that had been sat upon by a toad.
The weasel was the natural enemy of the basilisk, and it could be killed by showing it it’s own reflection in a mirror. The last way to kill a basilisk was for it to hear the crow of a rooster.
It’s embodiment of all that is truly evil, also made the basilisk a natural enemy to the symbol of al that is good: Jesus Christ. Much religious and medieval art depicted Christ defeating the basilisk, with the creature’s serpent like reputation similar to the biblical depiction of Satan.
The basilisk is mentioned in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. (Psalm 91:13 and Isaiah 59:5)
Some historians think that the basilisk’s original source in the natural history or beastiaries that recorded the animal as a real creature, were probably basing their descriptions on the Egyptian Cobra, who has the ability to rise up and strike, as well as to spit venom, all of which could describe the basilisk’s ability to kill with a glance (throwing venom from it’s face), as well as the belief that the basilisk is not able to be killed through physical strength, but rather through reversing the direction of the evil glance back to the source
It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on't.
The belief that a creature called a basilisk was not only real, but posed an actual threat to humans, was so prevalent that travellers to areas of the world where basilisks were thought to live would actually carry mirrors, roosters, and weasels with them for protection.
The travelers reporting back they had seen or encountered a basilisk in their travels were likely not lying or making things up as not only is the Egyptian cobra a very real, and very dangerous animal, but there are real lizards in existence today which some historians think travelers might have been witnessing. The horned adder, the hooded cobra, and even the Gila monster, make great candidates for the basilisk.
There is actually a real animal known as a basilisk, in fact, it’s an entire group of various kinds of lizards and sometimes includes certain types of iguana.
The green basilisk lizard, which is sometimes known as the Jesus Christ lizard, is an animal that lives in the forests of Central America. While you might expect the Christ treading on beasts medieval artwork would have influenced this guy’s holy monicker, it actually gets it’s name because it is able to skim across the top of water on two legs, balancing on only it’s toes. Since it can walk on water, the basilisk lizard is compared to Jesus Christ, who also walked on water in the late first century.
The basilisk vs the Cockatrice
The word basilisk itself is actual an Anglicization (meaning the English translation of) the Green word “Basiliskos” and in French, it was called the basilique. In Classical and early languages of Europe, this same rooster/serpent cross over creature was known as the cockatrice. It, also is thought to be born of an egg, with traits like breathing fire, delivering lethal venom, and ability to fly. The cockatrice, too, can kill with just a glance.
Some historians think a basilisk and a cockatrice are the same animal, while others argue that the basilisk was born from the egg of a snake and the cockatrice is born from a hen’s egg that was raised in a serpent’s nest. (The Book of the Dun Cow portrays the latter).
Alexander the Great felt basilisks were such a threat, he had mirrors installed to between his army and the basilisk that was guarding a city. Legend holds that upon seeing the mirror, the animal died instantly. St. George used his shield to show a basilisk his reflection, thus killing the creature right away.
Shakespeare was not the first to use the basilisk, however, and in fact– several of Shakespeare’s known source writers used the basilisk in their works. Chaucer uses the basilisk, as does Shakespeare’s often used resource, Pliny the Elder. Notably, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Edmund Spenser, also uses the basilisk in his works.
Wolframs-Eschenbach. Cemetery church St.Sebastian. Allegory of the strength of faith ( 1741 ) by Johann Michael Zinck of Neresheim. The latin inscription is: “Ne terreamini ab his” ( Don´t let you be terrified by these ) Source
Cry ‘Courage! to the field!' And thou hast talk'd
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners' ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Pliny the Elder is one of Shakespeare’s known sources, and he described the basilisk in his account of Natural History, about 40 years after Christ walked on water, by saying:
It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high. It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous; it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse. Source
By the 13th century, Albertus Magnus writes about the basilisk and his writing is used to demonstrate that the legend of the basilisk was attached to alchemy. A popular subject for the Renaissance as well, it would be plausible to think artists were using writings like this one as sources, though I cannot prove (nor am I suggesting) Shakespeare did that.
In any case, Magnus described the basilisk as a creature whose ashes can convert silver to gold (thus the connection to Alchemy). For alchemical writings, the basilisk was sometimes considered a type of salamander. In The Philosopher’s Stone, the basilisk was given the ability to turn anything into gold, cure all ills, and give eternal life. It was known as the basilisk as well as the cockatrice. For alchemists, they were the same animal.
By the time Shakespeare was writing his plays, people like Conrad Gesner, who is one of the most famous naturalists in history, wrote an account of the basilisk in his HIstoria Animalium. Gesner considered it unlikely that the creature was a real animal. Edward Topsell wrote a book called The History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects in which he described the possibliity of a cocatrice being born from a rooster’s egg.
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The Biblical Basilisk and Cockatrice
Historians believe it would have been considered sacrilegious for Topsell to deny this possibility since the King James Bible references both the basilisk as well as the cockatrice in two places:
One translation of Isaiah 59:5 reads,
“They break the eggs of asps and weave the spider’s web; he who would eat their eggs, having crushed the wind egg [ourion] finds in it a basilisk.”
But the King James Bible (written in 1611) says
“They hatch cockatrice’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web; he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.”
These passages are the foundation for the Renaissance association of the basilisk and cockatrice with evil and the devil.
As one historian puts it:
Not only did the mentioning of the basilisk in Holy Scripture anoint the creature’s existence with the highest authority, the evil, devilish and diabolical view of the beast lent itself well to increasingly grotesque depictions. And, the lack of descriptive detail in the biblical passages lent creative license to radical transformations to its physiological make-up, as long as the name was preserved. Source
In the original text, Psalm 91 also refers to a basilisk, but interestingly, by the time it was translated for the KJV in 1611, that verse has been changed to use the word “Adder”
It was by the 12th century that cockatrice and basilisk came to be truly interchangeable, and to even be used as any kind of chimeral monster. (Chimera being any animal that is a combination of beasts, breathing fire, poison, and highly dangerous).
Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding:
Yet do not go away: come, basilisk,
And kill the innocent gazer with thy sight;
1590 – 1610. Grey-brown wash, White lead, Pencil, Touches of chalk / pencil on yellow paper. Attributed to Jacopo Ligozi. Source
Fake basilisks were sold at markets
In medieval bestiaries, cockatrice and basilisk were used interchangeable, and rarely did writers make distinctions between what Pliny the Elder called a snake, or the chimeral monster from Greek mythology, versus the basilisk and cockatrice mentioned in the Bible. For the medieval bestiaries, they were all one big combined nasty creature.
All of this vague, convoluted, unclear definition of what a basilisk actually was, or could be, created a great opportunity for creative license when it came to sotries like the ones Shakespeare was telling.
Obviously, Shakespeare is keeping with some of the basic tenets of the legend surrounding a basilisk or cockatrice, but one writer, Laurence Breiner, points out that Shakespeare had a great deal of latitude in terms of what his audience would understand or arrive at the theater conceptualizing as the definition of a basilisk. An anonymous historian puts it this way:
Many of these images were based on contrivances of ‘real’ basilisks. Small, dried, carved and varnished marine rays and other fish were concocted and sold as ‘actual’ basilisks. Some of these so-called “Jenny-Hanivers,” several of which can still be found in some museums, were also created in the names of baby dragons, devil fishes, or some other suitably monstrous name. In fact, Gesner and Browne warn their readers “against these impostures — or at least spending too much for them.”18 Ulisse Aldrovandi, in his Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae of 1640, also warns of these Jenny-Hanivers, even though some of his own illustrations are based on them. Source
The entire concept of a basilisk and a cockatrice, and what they looked like or were capable of was all over the map in terms of a firm definition. The basilisk is much more of a mythical creature than even the unicorn, in that there was no set definition of what it consisted of. It was connected to alchemy, the chimeral phsiology, and artists were free to embellish or expand existing images of this creature to fit their narrative. That’s one reason when paintings from this time period are analyzed, the depictions of basilisks, chimera, or the cockatrice are all thought to represent monstrosity in general, as opposed to representing any specific symbolic meaning. In fact, Shakespeare could have even been employing connections with the concept of something being monstrous, undefined, ornamental, and lacking in actual content, as all of those ideas are not only part of the basilisk’s lore, but play easily into Shakespeare’s approach to theater and storytelling.
Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards' sting!
As a very pointed connection to Renaissance theater, for William Shakespeare’s lifetime, the actual words basilisk and cockatrice were not popular in contemporary literature, but were instead used in the vernacular, and most populary–from the stage.
The word, cockatrice was a slang term for prostitute, and almost every time the creature is mentioned onstage, it’s in connection with the creature’s ability to kill with a glance, a common attribute of women of the night.
An Elizabethan Weapon
In Shakespeare’s case, most of his references to the basilisk invoke the attribute of being able to kill with just a look.
Interestingly, there is another definition for basilisk that Shakespeare uses in his pay Henry V. Basilisk is the name for a type of military ammunition.
When young Elizabeth I was just a girl, her father Henry VIII was given a gift of a large 160 lb gun, called a Basilisk, capable of firing destructively at an enemy. It was given to Henry VIII as a gift for his young daughter, Elizabeth, and became known as Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol when she would go on to use it against the Spanish Armada in 1588.
When Shakespeare invokes this military reputation of the basilisk when in Henry V, Queen Isabel says:
Against the French, that met them in their bent,
The fatal balls of murdering basilisks:
The venom of such looks, we fairly hope,
Have lost their quality, and that this day
Shall change all griefs and quarrels into love.
Shakespeare is applying a double meaning here, firstly alluding to the ammunition, then metaphorically implying that the ammunition kills with just a look, to add to the ferocity of what she’s saying. It's also an example of an anachronism, since the weapon did not exist until it was first built in 1544, so it was a famous weapon for William Shakespeare, and a nod to Queen Elizabeth for the bard to use it in his play, but would not have been a weapon used by Henry V.