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Shakespeare mentions the word “crocodile” five times in his plays, but crocodiles not being native to England must have been introduced to the bard from outside his natural habitat there in London. The crocodile itself was well known in English literature, having been written about in association with Egypt and Africa by writers like Pliny the Elder centuries prior to Shakespeare. This particular beast was brought back to the forefront of popular imagination during Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, when explorers to the New World came home with stories of a new creature similar to the crocodile and unique to North America named the alligator. The alligator is mentioned only once in Shakespeare’s works in Act V Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet where it is included on a list of items on display in an apothecary shop. That reference is particularly interesting when you consider that a display of natural specimens in an apothecary shop is very likely one of the real places Shakespeare himself might have encountered one. Here to take us back to the mid 1590s as Shakespeare wrote about the alligator in Romeo and Juliet and explain for us what 16th century science believed about the alligator/crocodile is our guest, Spencer Weinreich. 

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Spencer Weinreich about: 

  • In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Lepidus asks the appropriate question, “What manner o’thing is your crocodile?” Spencer, this question is particularly interesting in context of history because neither crocodiles nor alligators are native to England, which begs the question:  Would Shakespeare have known what these creatures are when he was writing about them? 
  • The only mention of the “alligator” appears in Romeo and Juliet, where the alligator is listed along side “the skins of other ill shaped fishes” as a stuffed animal on display in an apothecary shop. Spencer, by the mid 1590s when Romeo and Juliet was written, would there have been real stuffed alligators on display around London? 
  • Were live crocodiles ever brought back to England and put on display during Shakespeare’s lifetime? 

….and more!

Spencer J. Weinreich is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science at Princeton University, writing a dissertation on the history of solitary confinement. His scholarship on early modern religion, natural philosophy, and historiography has appeared in Early Science and Medicine,Journal of Ecclesiastical HistorySocial History of MedicineJournal of the History of IdeasHistory Workshop Journal, and Renaissance Quarterly, among others.

What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

Lepidus

Antony and Cleopatra (II.7)

This woodcut is an illustration from page 682 of the book “The History of four-footed beasts and serpents” by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London, 1658. Original Source. Public Domain

Crocodile Exploration and Lack of Taxonomy

Elizabethan England was overrun with exploration bringing rare and exotic animals back to England as samples of the exploits overseas. As Spencer points out in this week’s episode, the 

“Elizabethan world is not as rigidly taxonomized as ours is. Shakespeare hasn’t read Linnaeus. It’s not that early modern observers don’t categorize—they’re simply mad about categories—but they have different ways of dividing up the world.”

This means that the understanding of wild animals, and particularly exotic animals not native to Britain, had a wide berth. For example, toads were thought to have diamonds in the middle of their head and garlic could neutralize a magnet. The natural world was an enigma to much of Shakespeare’s contemparies. 

When it comes to understanding exactly what a crocodile was, by definition, one man named Edward Topsell (a naturalist) gave a surprisingly accurate –though not completely so—description: 

It’s a serpent, which the English naturalist Edward Topsell defines this way: “all venomous Beasts, whether creeping without legges, as Adders and Snakes, or with legges, as Crocodiles and Lizards, or more neerely compacted bodies, as Toades, Spiders and Bees.” Topsell gives a rich account of the crocodile, which he describes as “like a Lizard in all points (excepting the tail, and the quantity of a Lizard)”, which is to say it’s much bigger. ..He goes into all sorts of physical detail—a nose resembling a pig’s, impenetrable hides, ravenous appetite, lots of teeth but no tongue—as well as behavior and relations with other sorts of creature and the long tradition of lore and scholarship stretching back to Ancient Greece. Similar information would have been available in any number of other works of natural history, as well as countless illustrations and other images of crocodiles: some of them fanciful, to be sure, but others intricately detailed and stunningly accurate. So Shakespeare has a wealth of information at his fingertips about what crocodiles look like, how they act, where they come from, and what the finest minds of the last three millennia have known about them. Plus he’s probably seen preserved specimens, in whole or in part. 

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  • Image of a woodcut illustration from, “The History of four-footed beasts and serpents” by Edward Topsell, 1658
  • Image of a 17th century woodcut illustration of the Arabian or Egyptian Land Crocodile
  • 17th century, Self-portrait of David Teniers the Younger, working in an apothecary shop
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Learn More on the History of Crocodiles inside the app.

Spencer mentions several additional instances of crocodiles or alligators showing up in England during (or just tangential to) Shakespeare’s lifetime in this interview. Listen to the full podcast for all the details. You can also see many of the images of crocodiles on display in churches, other 16-17th century paintings of crocodiles and alligators in apothecary shops, as well as links to popular folk tales related to dragaons/crocodiles from Shakespeare’s lifetime like St. George the Great, The Lambton Worm, and the Hellmouth Leviathan in the fresco “The Last Judgment” painted by Giacomo Rossignolo (1524-1604), plus even more that’s too much to list here, all packed into the video version of today’s episode. You can watch the first part of the video version on YouTube. The full video version and a printable ebook featuring these archival images and citations for the research sources related to today’s episode is inside the digital streaming app for That Shakespeare Life.

Resources Spencer Weinrech Recommends:

Web articles (these are all published in academic journals. Where I was able to find them, I have listed a free pdf version linked here. Your local library can help you get a free pdf version to read if you do not have access to these online journals. Just show the librarian the citation provided here.)

George C. Druce, “The Symbolism of the Crocodile in the Middle Ages,” The Archaeological Journal 66 (1909): 311–38. PDF

Louise W. Lippincott, “The Unnatural History of Dragons,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 77, no. 334 (Winter 1981): 2–24.

Rhodri Lewis, “Romans, Egyptians, and Crocodiles,” Shakespeare Quarterly68, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 320–50.

 Websites

The Medieval Bestiary online. bestiary.ca online resource that collects the classical and medieval lore surrounding the animals of the medieval bestiary, including an excellent entry on crocodiles.

Spencer recommends one section of this book related to crocodiles, a chapter by Joseph Campana, “Crocodile Tears: Affective Fallacies Old and New,” found on pg. 129–52. This book is available online here (or on amazon by clicking the book image shown above)

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