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The Collation

"What manner o' thing is your crocodile?": May edition

First, my thanks to all of you who suggested new  names for this series on identifying objects in our collection. The best suggestion came from Jeremy Dibbell, on twitter, who found this perfect moment in Antony and Cleopatra:

LEPIDUS: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with it own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

LEPIDUS: What color is it of?

ANTONY: Of it own color, too.

LEPIDUS: ’Tis a strange serpent.

ANTONY: ’Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.

(2.7.43-52) 1

There are many things to love about this passage. But for my purposes here, what I love is that its self-referentiality (What does a crocodile look like? It looks like itself, of course!) mixes, at the end, with a warning that what be more self-referentiality (Tears are wet) can also mean something that points outside of itself (Don’t forget that crocodile tears aren’t to be trusted, and neither is Pompey). Part of the challenge in this series of posts is to give name to things that look like themselves, but it is also to understand the larger meaning of those items and to learn something from asking, “what manner of thing is this?”

So on to this month’s crocodile challenge:

(click to enlarge)

If you follow me on twitter, you might recognize this photo, since I tweeted it out when I came across this. But if you missed it then, leave guesses about the nature and message of this crocodile in the comments below!

UPDATE: Given the quiet comment thread below, perhaps I erred too far on the side of the unobvious this time! I’m not interested in the words on the page, although they do help make a joke about what it is that I am seeing, a joke that has to do with early modern printing practices and who works in the printing house.

  1. New Folger Shakespeare Library, eds Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, New York: Washington Square Press, 1999.


I may be a bit dull, but I assume the problem is the wrong font in the second line of the stage direction at the top of the page. Black letter is the primary font in this book and roman the secondary font. Therefore, that second line should be in roman. There are several explanations about how this happened but I will leave that alone for now.

William Proctor Williams — May 8, 2012

Hmm, maybe this crocodile is too subtle! I actually wasn’t thinking about the font, and hadn’t even noticed the second line of that stage direction, though I’d be curious to learn what explanation you’d offer for that. I actually wasn’t looking at the words at all…

Sarah Werner — May 8, 2012

Well, with the assistance of Professor Antonia Forster we come to the conclusion that that bleed-through, offset, or what ever is making that odd and faint image (damned hard to tell on a small laptop screen which is all we have available at the moment) is in the wrong place. Re-used sheet? Can you, with better resolution or looking at the thing itself (is that the crocodile?), tell what kind of thing is producing that image? From best we can tell with the quality we have it looks a bit like prose when it should be verse and it appears to have no proper margin or no margin at all.

William Proctor Williams — May 8, 2012

This is turning out to be an excellent example of a digital image failing to substitute well enough for the original item! I had a huge hint about what to look for, but still didn’t notice (the huge hint: I bumped into Sarah in the Reading Room, and she said she was looking for examples of printers’ fingerprints in books, as opposed to readers’ fingerprints).

Erin Blake — May 9, 2012

OK, this is certainly a demonstration about the importance of the actual printed book over any, or almost any, digital image of it. That may be a fingerprint in the left margin but it seems too large and appears to run into the gutter and in its digital form to be at least as likely to be part of the texture of the paper and/or a trick of the light as the paper bends into the gutter as it is to be a true fingerprint. Can it be a palm print or something larger than just a finger (why, I wonder, does Tom Heywood spring into my mind just now?)? However, if those of you who have actually held this copy of this edition in your hand say it is a fingerprint then that is what it is. By the way, of the 9 printings of this play between 1604 and 1631 which one is this?

William Proctor Williams — May 9, 2012

I’ll need to do a better job of reminding people that if you click on images you can enlarge them in a new window! In any case, the answer to this crocodile mystery is in my next post: A book’s fingerprints

Sarah Werner — May 15, 2012

I’ve always loved that bit about the crocodile, just as a gag, and always used to quote it, but rereading it now for the first time in several years I see a lot of reasons to think Shakespeare might have been making a dick joke. Crocodile is a silly-sounding and new/unfamiliar enough word for his audience for him to have considered using it as a double entendre, and the context clues of the rest of the passage are very very suggestive.

btw it would be talking about an erect penis. “the elements once out of it” (having ejaculated) “it transmigrates” (shrinks back to flaccid) “tears” (ejaculate) etc. also the size description, width, breadth, the whole thing. even color works.

Paul — July 26, 2019