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Welcome to Episode 149 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

When medieval cartographers drew maps of the world they included mermaids among the fantastic ocean beasts that they believed roamed the waters of foreign lands. Professional explorers like Henry Hudson in 1608, described sighting a mermaid in the Northern Atlantic ocean, describing how the mermaid called to the men on his ship. Philosophers, physicians, and clergymen, all described, in detail, the discovery, examination, and even display of mermaid bodies. There was a pervasive belief that mermaids were real, and a definitive threat to anyone travelling the ocean. One of the most popular settings for Shakespeare’s plays, Italy was known for being a gathering place for mermaids. Along with individuals who saw mermaids in the wild, there were also persistent and incredible stories of mermaids like Melusine, who married a King of Scotland. Despite the centuries of folklore, mermaids seem to have a consistent description as to who, and what, they were, and where you would be able to find one.The 15th c saw a specific rise in the stories of mermaids, and by the time Shakespeare was writing about them, mermaids were a well established part of Renaissance thought across the British Isles. Here this week to take us back to the 16th century British Isles and share with us the history, folklore, and science behind mermaids to examine exactly what Shakespeare would have understood or believed about mermaids is the man who wrote the book on Merpeople, Vaughn Scribner.  

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Vaughn Scribner is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Merpeople: A Human History which explores the history of mermaids and mermen across the world, including the many surviving reports from sailors, pirates, and explorers who claimed to have seen these fantastic creatures. Vaughn has also published Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society, in addition to various articles and book chapters which cover the environmental, social, and political history of the British Empire. 


In this episode, I’ll be asking Vaughn Scribner about :

  • In his book, Merpeople, Vaughn Scribner points out an extensive medieval history foundation for the 16th c understanding of mermaids, and it seems there was a vague line between fact and fiction concerning mermaids. Vaughn, would people in Shakespeare’s lifetime have believed mermaids to be real creatures?

  • In his book, Vaughn cites real stories of mermaid sightings, just as one story in 1187. Vaughn writes, “in 1187, fishermen off  the coast of England caught a strange creature resembling ‘in shape a wild or savage man’” Vaughn, were there stories from Shakespeare’s lifetime of people finding what they considered to be real merpeople? 

  • One of the places we see mermaids depicted in artwork is from the Church. Vaughn, what was the 16th century Church’s opinion of mermaids, and why are they so prevalent in religious artwork from this period?


… and more!

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    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: the silken tackle
    Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
    That yarely frame the office.
    Domitius Enobarus

    Antony and Cleopatra (II.2)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Wood carving of a mermaid on a church bench in the transept of Zennor Church, England.
    Author David Cross – User: (WT-shared) Davidx at wts Wikivoyage

    Image used under CCBYA4.0 | Image Source

    Mermaids Were Real in the 16th Century

    With maritime exploration a new and exciting frontier for England in the 16th century, sea creatures like narwhals, octopus, or even whales, were all fantastic sights to see or hear about for people like William Shakespeare. Vaughn explains that not only was venturing out into the ocean to see incredible wildlife an overwhelming presence, but the idea of mermaids existing in real life was permeated in the religious culture of England as well.

    Getting into people’s mindsets of the past. People haven’t changed, the world has. People in the 16th century, a lot of people did believe in merpeople. It makes sense with what they grew up around. The church created this modern idea of a merperson (mermaid and a merman) by the 16th century these church worshippers (British Isles, France, and Italy) They would be surrounded by mermaids carved into wooden structures (rooves, bestiaries, benches, etc) They saw them in the church, heard these tales about people coming across mermaids, so they were expecting not just to find them at home but especially during the Renaissance, and travelling abroad, they expected to find them. Part of this idea of stretching the human idea. Humanity’s idea of the world around them. People thought humankind started in the water. So it made sense to think there were hybrid creatures in the water. Church was the center of life and governance. 

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    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

    Antipholus of Syracuse

    Comedy of Errors (III.2)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    A Most Strange and True Report of a Monsterous Fish | From a 17th century pamphlet entitled ‘A most strange and true report of a monsterous fish, who appeared in the forme of a woman, from her waste upwards by P.G.’ the story of an alleged sighting of a mermaid near Pendine, Carmarthenshire in 1603.

    Author Unknown 

    Image used under CCBYA4.0 | Image Source

    Mermaids Dazzled Ocean Explorers

    Shakespeare’s lifetime was rife with oceanic exploration, with explorers going not only to the New World with people like the Puritans establishing places like Jamestown, but also explorers were often travelling the oceans in search of new and exotic goods like spices or animals. Vaughn explains that when explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh, or others, travelled across the ocean, there was not so much a fear of the creatures as there was a fascination:

    Not a fear, so much as an interest. Allegedly mermaids would clamor ont oships (John Josslyn, example, 17tyh century explorer, resting in a canoe, and a merman tried to climb into this both, cut his arm off and it bled purple blood…[in my research I read in the] Pennsylvania Gazzette, Benjamin Franklin describes a mermaid off the coast of Italy…Children who found a mermaid in France and cut it’s hands off.
    They can get grotesque…

    Many of these explorers wrote about their encounters with mermaids, demonstrating that it was not a made up fantastic idea, but instead was the explanations of the new by people who had never considered the kind of beasts they were witnessing before. In other cases, like that of John Smith, sometimes the sightings were what was invented.

    They aren’t afraid of them, they see them as a novelty of the sea–something interesting to encounter on travels. John Smith saw a mermaid (some scholars were saying 1610-1614)

    Whe Vaughn was researching this, he took it upon himself to read everything John Smith has written. Impressively, throughout all the documents, Vaughn found no record of where he said he saw a mermaid.

    In 1620ish, an English author misattributed a citing by another Englishman named Richard Withborn, to John Smith..[potentially] an intentional misattribution, but since then–so close to 400 years, historians have said John Smith saw a mermaid, but he never actually said that.

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    I’ll stop mine ears against the mermaid’s song.
    Antipholus of Syracuse

    Comedy of Errors (III.2)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Page from a book dated 1524 showing “Monsters of the World.” by Jean Mandeville, original is at the Biblioteca Nacional de España

    Image used under CCBYA4.0 | Image Source

    Real Sightings of Mythical Creatures

    While some sightings, like that of John Smith, were fabricated about Smith seeing an ocean creature, the question was not whether or not a mermaid had been seen, only whether it was Smith who saw it. The beasts themselves in the ocean (or whatever they were) were absolutely real. Was it narwhals? Perhaps giant squid? Vaughn writes in his book, Merpeople, that there were some real animals discovered in the ocean travels of these explorers who were often considered to be physical representations of the mythical creatures of folklore the explorers had read about. Vaugh writes,

    Europeans found all sorts of monstrous creatures in the Americas. Just as Marco Polo noted a variety of wondrous flora, fauna and creatures in his eastern travels, so too did New World explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Columbus claim to interact with everything from headless men to cyclops to the cynocephalus

    1. Antica incisione nello “Speculum naturale” di Vincenzo di Beauvais raffigurante un dracontopode | Author Unknown Medieval Artist
    Public Domain | Image Source
    2. Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana |Author Sailko
    Image used under CCBYA3.0 | Image Source
    3. Bestiary, fol. 163v | Collection: Manuscripts and Early Printed Books, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Shelfmark: MS. Laud Misc. 247 | 12th century, second quarter | Artist Unknown
    Public Domain | Image Source

    In his book, Merpeople, Vaughn includes an illustration of this animal for reference, and the drawings definitely look like a mix of a human and an animal. Vaughn shares that there are a variety of animals we would consider normal today that for, Shakespeare’s day, explorers thought they were encountering legends and myths out in the open sea.

    Interesting to put yourself in the mindset of a 16th century European, living in London and these travellers finding strange new people as well as strange new plants and animals. There isn’t anything in their lives that happens, there is a large sense of wonder for 16thy century. Mermaids in 3 different plays. [Cassidy Note: Shakespeare uses the word “mermaid” in 5 plays, and in two poems] The possum–see them everywhere now. They are really weird animals and were the first marsupial the Europeans came across. Carries it’s babies in a pouch. Compared possum to allegory for human women. Unicorn horns, narwhal horns, and strange plants too…

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    Since once I sat upon a promontory,
    And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
    Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
    That the rude sea grew civil at her song
    And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
    To hear the sea-maid’s music.

    Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.1)

    Comedy of Errors Lithograph

    Illustration from 1669 of the “Sea Bishop”. This creature was possibly based on a specimen of giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or angelshark (Squatina squatina). Woodcut from folio leaf (33 x 22.5 cm) | 1669 | Author Conrad Gesner (1516–1565)

    Public Domain | Image Source

    Mermaids Gathered in Italy 

    Conrad Gessner comes up frequently here on That Shakespeare Life as his writings and illustration often provide insight into the 16th century perspective on life. Vaughn writes about Conrad Gessner as a source of understanding mermaids, too, when he says “In . .. the Swiss philosopher Conrad Gessner contended that ‘a man fish, about the size of a boy [was] seen at Rome’..” Vaughn explains why Italy was significant for mermaid sighting:

    Mermaids were commonly “found” in Italy during the 16thy century. Many sightings around Italy in general. Flourishing of the Renaissance, and trade. Italy was arguably the first trade port with the Far East. Mermaids of Venice book. Carvings, paints, everywhere throughout Italy, all over the place, carved into buildings, part of a seaborn identify in REnaissance ITaly. Money, art, adn exploration coming together in spades in Italy, it makes sense they would illustrate mermaids a lot as a symbol of their exploration into the ocean and their wealth. Happens again in London during the 18-19th century, when London becomes a powerful seaborn empire. 

    1560 Breastfeeding Whale | 1560 | Author Conrad Gessner: Icones Animalium (1560)
    Public Domain | Image Source

    While the history of mermaids confirms there are real and fantastic creatures being sighted by reliable sources during Shakespeare’s lifetime, it seems that there was never just one creature that can be identified as “this is what they are describing”. Similar to how a narwhal and a rhinoceros have both been described in antiquity as “unicorn”, the term “mermaid” has many contenders for the animal that can be described with that title.

    Scholars today like to say “They were seeing manatees” but the descriptions do not match a manatee. Saw one in Africa, and gives a description, that gives very clear terms, half woman, half man, and half fish. They draw them in this way. Common theme, but interestingly, the common theme isn’t “they are manatees,” instead it is giving them human descriptions. Hair like a woman, imbued with reason, cries out like a human, human and masculine features. Their drawings have humanoid terms.

    Ole Worm (1588-1654)
    Image used under CCBYA4.0 | Image Source

    Chamber of Art and Curiosities | The person depicted is Abraham Ortelius | Artist Francken the Younger (1581-1642)
    Public Domain | Image Source

    Engraving from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) | 1599 | Author (Anonymous, for Ferrante Imperato)
    Public Domain | Image Source

    In addition to written accounts of encountering mermaids, Vaughn writes that many physical specimens were brought back to England and kept in Cabinets of Curiosity. A way of declaring the education and culture of the man who owned such a cabinet, these curio cabinets (as they would come to be known much later than Shakespeare) would be filled with various items of the natural world, like mermaids.

    Critical for a wealthy Englishman, mastery over the natural world. Any naturalist worth their salt would have had a wundercabben, cabinet of curiosity, even a whole room in your house, dedicated to strange specimens from around the world. Favorite room at the British Museum is the giant cabinet of curiosity, it’s the first room on the right, an incredible collection from around the world. Not just specimens, but artifacts, mummies. There is a mermaid specimen in the British Museum you can see. Interestingly, these became so popular, teh royal society of London had in it’s collection, “ rib or trident of a merman” “fish to which it belonged was caught off the coast of Brazil ” to even think of questioning their credulity was beyond means. Most powerful thinkers of the western world had tridents of mermaids in their collection. 

    Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

    Books & Resources Vaughn Scribner Recommends

    Vaughn’s “Desert Island Book” selection:

    The Female Opossum and the Nature of the New World
    Susan Scott Parrish
    The William and Mary Quarterly
    Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1997), pp. 475-514 (40 pages)
    Published By: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

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