Emma Phipson is an author we have struggled with, not because of her detailed and comprehensive 1883 work on The Animal-Lore of Shakespeare’s Time, Including Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles, Fish and Insects, but because in writing the blurbs for one of our reissues, we try always to include the writer’s dates of birth and death. You can usually tell when we haven’t succeeded, from the phrase ‘little is known about the life of X, who published this work in …’.
In Phipson’s case, all we have been able to find out is that she published another work, Choir Stalls and Their Carvings: Examples of Misericords from English Cathedrals and Churches, in 1896, and that she was known to Sidney Webb, who refers to her in a letter as a member of the Zetetical (today’s new word!) Society in 1882, with the helpful comment, ‘I decidedly think ladies should not be excluded.’ Miss Phipson addressed the Society at some point on ‘Was Shakespeare a democrat?’, but other than that, we are a bit stuck.
The choir stalls book is described as ‘sketched by Emma Phipson, with an introduction and descriptive notes’, which suggests that the book (which I haven’t been able to view) consists of drawings. One can see that the exotic bestiaries of medieval wood-carving would appeal to someone who had previously tackled the equally exotic congeries of Shakespeare’s literary menagerie.
At this point, I should also come clean about the title. Phipson, along with many other nineteenth-century writers, sought to ‘authenticise’ the spelling of the Bard’s name: her own title uses the spelling ‘Shakspeare’, but in our prelims and listings for the book, we call him ‘Shakespeare’ because experience has taught us that online searches with any of the variant spellings don’t always work, and we want this book to be as visible as possible. Phipson’s indispensable reference work, by the way, is Mary Cowden Clarke’s monumental (in all senses – don’t drop it on your foot) Shakspere [sic] Concordance.
In her introduction, Phipson makes two observations: the more general, that ‘few subjects have more frequently occupied the attention of man than that of his own relation to the animal life around him’; the more specific that ‘the number of animal metaphors and similes in Shakspeare’s works so greatly exceeds that of any of his brother dramatists’. She speculates that ‘it may be that his deeper study of the problems concerning man’s origin and destiny, led him thus closely to connect man with his fellow-denizens on earth’.
Another observation, by one Rev. J. Kirkman, whom Phipson quotes, reminds us that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘the season and atmosphere of exuberant life, joy, and fun, show almost all creatures but serpents under their genial light’. In King Lear, by contrast, a greater number of animals is mentioned than in any other play, ‘and with scarcely an exception the references are unfavourable. Their cruelty, treachery, and deceit are dwelt upon, and withal the terrible fact of the similar villainy of man’.
Animals as symbols, metaphors, similes, and occasionally themselves: Phipson’s chapters ‘follow the modern classification of the animal kingdom’, though one wonders why the first chapter encompasses ‘monkey, bat, hedgehog, mole, shrew’, and why the various felines of chapter 2 have the wolf and jackal alongside them when chapter 3 is simply ‘dog’. We advance from mammals to birds, to reptiles and fish (salt- and fresh-water), insects, shellfish, octopodes and coral, and finally the seriously rare specimens: unicorn, dragon, basilisk, cockatrice, wyvern, and the dreaded mantichor (mantichora, manticore), whose portrait, taken from the Rev. Edward Topsell’s 1607 Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, provides a frontispiece (and our cover image).
To claim the manticore as a Shakespearean beast is a bit disingenuous. It works thus: in a play called The Miseries of Inforced Marriage, published in the same year as Topsell’s work, money-lenders are compared to ‘mantichoras, monstrous beasts, enemies to mankind, that have double rows of teeth in their mouths. They are usurers, they come yawning for money.’ Topsell says that ‘although India be full of divers ravening beasts’, none of them are called ‘andropophagi, that is to say, men eaters; except onely this mantichora’; and from this, Phipson jumps to Othello’s famous anthropophagi.
Manticores have a respectable history in the classical and medieval periods: the Elder Pliny vouches for them, as he does for the phoenix and other exotica, so they must be true. Phipson cites an impressive number of sources for her ‘waifs and strays of information’, many of them familiar to CLC readers: Nares’ A Glossary, Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, Bacon’s works, Benzoni’s History of the New World, Brand’s Popular Antiquities, Dr Johnson’s English Poets, Hakluyt’s Voyages, Marco Polo, Thomas Pennant’s History of Quadrupeds, Conway’s Demonology and Devil-Lore …
The index takes you from adder, via ‘burge, or bogy, a fur’ (and did you know that ‘a timber of fur’ is 40 skins of sables bundled together?), ‘Ordegale the beaver’s wife’, ‘Rukenawe, the she ape’, and many more, to zebu. But if this book doesn’t temporarily slake your thirst for Shakespeariana, try the much shorter Three Notelets on Shakespeare (1865) of W.J. Thoms, the founder editor of Notes & Queries, which contains articles on ‘Shakespeare in Germany’ (did Will tour Germany as part of a band of strolling players?); ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ (NB that Thoms coined the word ‘folklore’); and ‘Was Shakespeare ever a soldier?’ to which he gives the answer yes.