Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Of Turds and Beetle Wings
Based on this morning's reading, I don't entirely trust the editor of the Arden Antony and Cleopatra. For example, he notes that "Shakespeare seems to have confused [Herod the Great] with his successor, also Herod, who ruled at the time of the birth of Christ and [was] the man responsible for the Slaughter of the Innocents". Ahem - the confusion is not Shakespeare's. Perhaps the editor is muddled by the fact that Herod died in 4BC?

Then there's this line, which Enobarbus comes out with when he and Agrippa are making fun of Lepidus and his ineffectual relations with Caesar and Antony: "They are his shards and he their beetle" (3.2.20).

Arden's note reads:

An allusion to the proverb "The beetle flies over many sweet flowers and lights in a cowshard" (Tilley, B221). Steevens and others mistakenly interpreted shards as "the wings of a beetle" owing to a misunderstanding of Mac 3.3.42, "the shard-born beetle" ("shard-borne" in F) which actually means "the beetle born out of dung". A shard is a cow-pat (OED sb2).

Now, I'd always thought of "shard" as meaning beetle wings, but of course I might have been misled by Steevens and his successors. The OED does have that sense too, but its earliest citation is 1811 - except for a bracketed citation from Johnson's Dictionary (1755), which reads, under the entry for "Shardborn": "Perhaps shard in Shakespeare may signify the sheaths of the wings of insects."

Of course, the OED's earliest citation is just that - it doesn't tell us when a sense came into use. So, what is Johnson going on here? Perhaps this is an informed guess - after all, he and Shakespeare were both Midland boys (Lichfield is just 44 miles from Stratford), and there may be some dialect word for beetle wings that they both knew, of which the OED is ignorant. He doesn't sound very certain, though: perhaps he was flailing about for a reading and, inspired by F's "borne", looking for something that keeps beetles aloft rather than something that hatches them?

Okay then, what about internal sense? The image of the lumpen Lepidus (who had to be carried out drunk a few minutes earlier) being the heavy beetle borne up by the glistening wings of Antony and Caesar makes perfect sense to me. On the other hand, though our editor doesn't mention it, the idea of beetles being born from dung does evoke thoughts of scarabs, and is just the kind of Egyptian detail Shakespeare scatters throughout the play. But I don't see how it works as a metaphor: it would require us to think of Antony and Caesar as dung, which seems a very unlikely image even for the irreverent Enobarbus. The explanation through Tilley's proverb has the same problem. For that matter, why would a beetle require more than one shard from which to be born?

In short, the editor has succeeded in robbing me of confidence in a rather striking and effective image, but failed to offer a replacement that works. Blast you, John Wilders!

Flourish transfix

I assumed this had something to do with the (Egyptian) scarab's exoskeleton. Shards in Hamlet are broken fragments, as of pots (i.e. sherds), a flatish surface which encases something else. I imagine that shard = wing and shard = bark both have to do with the sense of shard as a surface. For A&C it would mean, I thought, that Antony and Caesar are the armor: metonymy for Roman martial force and power, and Lepidus the soft and trivial inside of the triumvirate. I wonder whether Shakespeare thought the scarab was sacred because of its beauty, its shards (?), or because of its usefulness. I imagine the first. If shards = exoskeleton, there's also the adumbration of the triumvirate going to pieces -- shards as fragments of the casing -- which is what Enobarbus says will happen once Lepidus no longer mediates and balances between Antony and Caesar.

But I guess I could see this as just pure contempt for Lepidus, in a conversation in which Enobarbus and Agrippa are studiously unimpressed by Antony and Caesar. They mock Lepidus, mimicking his praise of the two as the fly's praise for the shit. It's not that Antony and Caesar are shit: it's that Lepidus's extravagant overestimation can equally be seen in the beetle's overestimation of shit. So Antony and Caesar are brought to human scale while Lepidus's praise of them reduces him to beetle-scale.

Re: Flourish transfix

I can accept the exoskeleton, armour and fragment ideas as part of the semantic penumbra of the word. I can't quite make them work together, though: is the armour broken, for example? Also, making Lepidus the beetle, and the other two his protectors, gives him a primacy that doesn't accord with the sense in the scene and throughout that he is the Empire's superfluous third wheel, useful as a peacemaker and go-between perhaps, but certainly not central to its functioning. Enobarbus foresees trouble coming through Antony's likely disregard of Octavia rather than the disappearance of Lepidus, which barely warrants a line when it happens.

It's not that Antony and Caesar are shit: it's that Lepidus's extravagant overestimation can equally be seen in the beetle's overestimation of shit.

I like this idea a lot.

Re: Flourish transfix

The armour isn't broken, but in pieces. It's put on a segment at a time.


Re: Flourish transfix

Yes, that could work - although brokenness, or at least division, is intrinsic to the idea of a shard (etymologically cognate with "sheared", "shire", "share", etc). It would be good to see some other example of its being used in this sense: at first blush the term suggests that the armour was originally a one-piece.

Shard in the dung sense has a different root, of course, while shard in the sense of insect wings is attributed by the OED to a misunderstanding of Shakespeare (see Johnson's entry above)! But that of course is to beg the question.

Re: Flourish transfix

I think nightspore's second idea is right, looking at the context. The beetle in this image thinks as highly of his parent shards as Lepidus does of Caesar and Antony. It's because of them that he came to power (in the case of the beetle, to existence at all). He's their creation, their puppet.


"There is no question that it is a hedgehog dropping, the size of a child's pinkie, studded with beetle shells; some are shiny black gemstones, others larger and finely ridged. One drops off at the prod of a stick and falls on its back, matt side up. Dislodged and out of context it has lost its beetleness, and bears more of a resemblance to a sunflower seed husk."

"Shells" is an interesting word choice too, coming from a country diarist!

Equally serendipitously, a dead hedgehog appeared very close to my front doorstep a couple of days ago. I'm used to seeing dead ones that have been run over, but not like this. I suspect foxes.

Awww. Poor tiggy.

Hullo, I'm just re-reading Antony and Cleopatra myself. Must be in the wind. And I'm thoroughly enjoying this conversation. Me, I've always liked the winged reading, but...

The English Dialect Dictionary notes shard as:

4. The shell or hard covering of a coleopterous insect. N.Cy.' w.Yks. WILLANS List Words (1811)

That's where the OED got it. No quotes, so Willans could merely be copying some ingenious Shakespearean.


Willans could merely be copying some ingenious Shakespearean.

That appears to be the inference of the OED, which gives the etymology of the sense thus:

Evolved from a misunderstanding of Shakespeare's use in shard-born adj.: see also quot. a1616 at shard n.2

So, according to the OED, someone in West Yorkshire picks up an erroneous reading from Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 (or perhaps Steevens' edition of Shakespeare a couple of decades later), and their usage in turn finds its way into Willans' list of 1811 as an example of Yorkshire dialect. It's possible - but it seems quite a quick turnaround! Equally likely is that "shard" was an existing (though previously unrecorded) dialect word for beetle wings - a possibility that fortuitously preserves the reading you and I prefer.

Edited at 2013-10-05 11:31 pm (UTC)

The matter appears to be discussed in some detail in a book called The Ecocritical Shakespeare. One of the references is to an article called "Squashing the 'Shard-Borne Beetle' Crux: A Hard Case With a Few Pat Readings," by Timothy Billings. I see what you did there, Timothy Billings, and I'm not sure you shoulda dung it. :)

Sounds as if it could be a useful article - as long as it's not just going through the motions...

Okay, I've read it now. It's a good article, actually, and full of new material germane to this discussion. For example, he is able to push the "wing" reading back a little further than Johnson, to 1744, and in passing to suggest an etymology for it (ME "scherdes", meaning scales). It also turns out there's another, equally ambiguous version of the crux in Cymbeline:

And often, to our comfort, shall we finde
The sharded-Beetle, in a safer hold
Then is the full-wing'd Eagle.

Billings is a dung man, as you might be able to guess from his title, and he's certainly able to provide plenty of contemporary references associating beetles and dungy shards; but no one denies that connection, and I don't think he delivers a knock-out blow (or even blow fly).


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