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Shakespeare & Beyond

The political insect: Bees as an early modern metaphor for human hierarchy


beehive with inscription 'He who by Bees doth ever thinke to thrive, Must order them, and neatly trim his Hive.beehive with inscription 'He who by Bees doth ever thinke to thrive, Must order them, and neatly trim his Hive.
John Levett. The ordering of bees… 1634. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Throughout this Wild Things series, we have considered how early modern English writers, including Shakespeare, understood their world through animals. This has never been more true than when it comes to the bee. As Joseph Campana writes in “The Bee and the Sovereign? Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale,”

For Renaissance Europe, and England especially, neither the allure of the ape nor the iconic foxes and wolves of Machiavelli, nor the bears and dogs of London’s Bear Garden, nor nearly any other of the many potent figures in the political bestiary had such power to focus the entanglements of human and non-human creatures as the bee. (97)

Bees, and all of the products they produced, were essential to early modern life. Sugar—mostly imported from British colonies where enslaved people made it from sugarcane—was unaffordable for most people. But honey was a widely available sweetener, central to both cooking and brewing. More expensive than honey, beeswax was used for high-quality candles (as opposed to the more common ones made out of tallow), medicinally, and in the professional and domestic decorative arts. Both honey and beeswax could be harvested from wild hives — and beeswax was imported from West Africa, a major producer by the 17th century — but people also kept hives in their yard. Housekeeping manuals from the period stress the importance of beekeeping knowledge for both men and women.

Diagrams showing beehive construction plansDiagrams showing beehive construction plans
John Gedde. A new discovery of an excellent method of bee houses & colonies … 1675. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Early modern creatives, including Shakespeare, were fascinated with bees as metaphors for human behavior, especially when it came to politics and government. While there are many apian references in Shakespeare’s plays, from the “bee, tolling from every flower” in Henry IV, Part 2 (4.3.226) to the “stinging bees” of Titus Andronicus (5.1.14), his most extended engagement with bees comes in Henry V. In this scene, the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to convince Henry that he has the right to invade France and that he can do so without risking security at home. To support his argument, he looks to “the honeybees, / Creatures that by a rule in nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom.” Just like England will, he argues, honeybee society can support many different roles and endeavors:

They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone. (Henry V 1.2.191-212)

The idea that different kinds of bees occupy different roles in the hive was common knowledge in the seventeenth century and is consistent with what we know of bee behavior today. Indeed, much of what the Archbishop lays out here is familiar to modern-day beekeepers, even as it also serves the Archbishop’s rhetorical purposes. It’s true, for instance, that drones do not work in the hive; their only job is to mate with the queen. And while they’re not executed, they are frequently driven from hives in the fall by other bees. As English professor and beekeeper Richard Grinnell argues in “Shakespeare’s Keeping of Bees,” “The whole description is loaded to make the most powerful argument possible for King Henry to attack France, but if we remove the argumentative necessity of the passage, we see that Shakespeare is working with descriptions of the hive that seem familiar, even to us.” (844)

Drone bees being removed by worker beesDrone bees being removed by worker bees
This image from the second edition of The Feminine Monarchie depicts worker bees taking the drones away from the hive. The top caption, Solertia et labore, translates to shrewdness and labor, while the bottom, Socordium Luimus, translates to “For idleness we atone.”

There is one glaring difference, of course: for Shakespeare, as for many of his contemporaries, the leader of the bees was a king, not a queen. It’s easy to understand why; as Mary Baine Campbell argues in her essay, “Busy Bees: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Very Small,”

For as long as two hundred years, natural philosophers and even beekeepers were willing and even eager to distort their closely observed accounts of bee sociality in the service of maintaining the power of the bee “polity” to analogize, and thereby to authorize, prevailing norms such as gender hierarchy in government, the superior usefulness of male labor, or the chastity and monogamy of women. (622)

But Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing at a time when the idea of a female monarch was, if not always comfortable, at least thinkable, and the question of a monarch bee’s sex was under some debate in the seventeenth century. In his 1608 The Historie of Serpents, Edward Topsell describes the king of the bees as being “ever of a tall, personable, and heroicall stature, being twice so high as the rest, his wings shorter, his legs streight, brawny, and strong” while also acknowledging that “the greatest company of learned Writers . . . make the feminine sort to be the greater.”

Edward Topsell. The historie of serpents… 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie, published in 1609 (six years after Elizabeth I’s death), is the first major English beekeeping book to firmly acknowledge the monarch’s female sex. But even Butler can be swayed by the desire to metaphorize bees. In line with other thinkers who analogize English and bee ‘politics,’ he describes the great love of bee ‘subjects’ for their ‘queen,’ “whom above al things they have a principal care & respect, loving, reverencing, and obeying her in al things . . . God having shewed in them unto men an expresse patterne of a perfect monarchie, the most natural & absolute forme of government.”

For me, though, what lingers from Butler’s delightful treatise is not the analogy, but his evident love of the “little Bees,” whose “worke and fruit” is

so comely for order and beauty, so excellent for art and wisdom, and so full of pleasure and profit; that the contemplation thereof may well beseeme an ingenious nature. And therefore not without cause are the Bees called the Muses birds.

Next month on Wild Things, “a watchful and wary beast seldom overtaken, and most attendant to her sport and prey.”