Shakespeare knew his insects

Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.

Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’

‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.


The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days.

The attempt to blend the imagery of the Bard with the facts recorded by Science, has been made in the humble hope, that the worshippers of our Great Dramatist might be pleased to see another offering laid upon his shrine, and that the youthful lovers of Entomology might be attracted by the exhibitions of her charms, reflected in the bright imaginings of the Poet.

The book is part literary analysis, part entomology text and part ode to natural history. Many of Patterson’s comments on education, public attitudes to science, natural history and insect conservation could have been written yesterday.

This is the radical error in university education. Its votaries are conversant with books, not with nature…

Patterson reviewed Shakespeare’s works because of his theory that poetry and natural history could “each give to each a double charm”. Poets of the day were renowned for embellishing their verses with naturalist themes, but Patterson complained that many took too much poetic license at the expense of scientific accuracy.

So Patterson studied all the Bard’s plays, not to analyse characters or criticise his use of iambic pentameter, but to identify how much Shakespeare knew about natural history. He transcribed all the passages he found, which equated to 22 pages related to mammals, 16 to birds, 9 to reptiles and fish, 2 to shells and minerals, 9 to insects, 13 to trees, flowers and fruit, and 29 to natural phenomena. Yes, animals with fur and wings have always gotten more attention than insects!

We are all too apt to associate ideas of importance with the possession of corporeal bulk, and to regard as trifling all those animals which are diminutive in size.

According to Patterson’s study, Shakespeare covered seven insect orders: Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), Diptera (flies), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets), Aphaniptera (fleas, now called Siphonaptera) and Aptera (lice, now called Phthiraptera).

Patterson was clearly up with the taxonomic times. Grasshoppers and crickets had only just been separated from the Hemiptera (cicadas and planthoppers) in the late 1700s, but some of Patterson’s contemporary authors were still referring to them as hemipterans.

And the link runs deep. The ancient Greeks adored cicadas. They called them tettix, an onomatopoeia of the insect’s distinctive chirp. Unfortunately, early classical scholars translated the word into English incorrectly, taking it to mean ‘grasshopper’ and probably contributing to years of confusion – Phaedrus makes much more ecological sense when you know Socrates is actually talking about cicadas.

The taxonomic legacy of tettix remains in the orthopteran katydid family, Tettigoniidae. Patterson also refers to a hemipteran called the cuckoo-spit bug, Tettigonia spumaria. Tettigonia is now known as a genus of katydid, so Patterson appears to be talking about the meadow froghopper Philaenus spumaria, which has a long history of confusing classification, including being originally named in the Cicada genus by Linnaeus.

Patterson shifts easily from detailed entomological descriptions and natural history anecdotes to literary analysis. He also includes insect-themed verses from other sources, from the Bible to Wordsworth, to build his key argument – that entomology is both interesting and culturally relevant.

The excerpts Patterson has collected show that Shakespeare was clearly aware of insect ecology and biology, including insect metamorphosis (Love’s Labour’s Lost Act V Scene II) and the ecological functions of different types of larvae, from carrion maggots (Hamlet, Act I Scene II) to silk moth cocoons (Othello, Act III Scene IV).

Using a few historical examples, like the mysterious plague of ants that almost destroyed the sugar cane industry in Grenada during the 1700s, Patterson argues that understanding an insect’s living and eating habits can help us understand how it impacts its environment. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of a recently revived focus in ecology on the functional traits of an organism, in order to understand how it contributes to ecosystem function and services.

The advantages which insects produce are, however, more important than the injuries they occasion.

This unique piece of natural history literature is worth a read. It provides a fascinating natural, cultural and taxonomic history and highlights how much our culture was once influenced by Nature.

We learn that the “sharded beetle”, appearing in Macbeth (Act III Scene II), Antony & Cleopatra (Act III Scene II) and Cymbeline (Act III Scene III), was not a species, but a reference to the old English term (shard) for the beetle’s elytra, or hard outer wings. (UPDATE: Thanks to Prof Randall Martin for pointing out via Twitter that recent debate among Shakespeareans has identified ‘sharded’ as referring to dung. It’s a pity that Patterson didn’t realise this; he probably had plenty to say about the ecosystem services provided by dung beetles.)

In Hymenoptera, honey bees get the most coverage and wasps get a bad rap…not much has changed since. But Shakespeare was familiar with solitary bees too, referring to the “red-tailed humble-bee” (most likely Bombus lapidarius) in All’s Well that End’s Well (Act IV Scene V).

There are a few taxonomic anomalies to keep entomologists guessing. Patterson notes three taxonomic divisions in the Lepidoptera: Butterflies, Sphinxes (the hawkmoths) and Moths (all the others). He also includes the Diptera (flies) and Aphaniptera (fleas) in the same chapter, perhaps because they were once thought to be related.

Arachnologists will be pleased there is a chapter devoted to Shakespearean spiders. They will be even more pleased that Patterson states in the first paragraph that spiders are not an insect at all (his emphasis), but he can’t help including them.

Throughout the book, Patterson makes an effort to point out the beneficial role of insects in their environment. Caterpillars of all the contemptible, closet-inhabiting moths are food to thousands of birds; flesh flies preserve the air purity by consuming carrion (he was a bit off with that one, but you get the point); dangerous wasps parasitise all the pests of our favourite vegetables. The concept of ecosystem services is definitely not a new one.

I hope enough has now been adduced to show that the study of Entomology should not, by any reflective mind, be regarded as frivolous or degrading, and that if we would either derive advantage or escape injury from insects, a knowledge of their habits and economy is alike indispensable.

© Manu Saunders 2016

10 thoughts on “Shakespeare knew his insects

  1. Ichneumon April 27, 2016 / 3:28 AM

    This is fantastic – the naturalists of old were often interesting people. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sleather2012 May 2, 2016 / 7:39 PM

    Thanks for that excellent post – more material for my book if I ever get the time to write it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Don Strong May 4, 2016 / 1:14 AM

    Shakspere also did food webs, brown food webs.

    Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

    At supper.

    At supper! where?

    Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
    Convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your
    Worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
    Creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
    Maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
    Variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
    That’s the end.

    Alas, alas!

    A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
    King, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

    What dost thou mean by this?

    Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
    Progress through the guts of a beggar.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gordon G Geise II February 27, 2020 / 11:35 AM

    I’d like to see the argument for “sharded” as “dwelling in dung”. The participate form of the verb argues strongly for the previous theory, holding “sharded” equivalent to “shielded”. I think some drunk Shakespeareans are confusing the word with “sharted”.


  5. Natalie September 13, 2021 / 6:55 AM

    I love this resource because there are Shakespeare Gardens across the world that seek to showcase plants referenced by The Bard. But as our gardens change and we learn from Tallamy to plant not just for ourselves but for the animals that share our land, our Shakespeare Gardens can now include local insects and the plants they feed on while staying true to the intention of a Shakespeare Garden.


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