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Shakespeare & Beyond

Wild Things: Rats in early modern life and Shakespeare's plays

On Saturday, January 25, the Lunar New Year will mark the beginning of the Year of the Rat. According to legend, the Jade Emperor held a race for the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac to determine their order. The rat tricked the much faster ox into carrying him on his back. Then, just as the ox was about to clear the finish line, the rat jumped ahead, securing his place as the first animal of the zodiac. It’s no surprise, then, that people born in the Year of the Rat are said to be clever and resourceful, traits that early modern Europeans also saw in these endlessly fascinating, eternally troublesome little animals.

Text about rats and illustration of a rat

Edward Topsell. The historie of foure-footed beastes. 1607. p. 519. Folger STC 24123 Copy 2

In his 1607 book Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, our old friend Edward Topsell calls the rat the “great domesticall Mouse,” claiming that rats are like mice in being “evil, apt to steale, incideous, and deceitful” (traits that Hamlet may be thinking of when he stabs Polonoius behind the arras, crying, “A rat, a rat!”). The only notable difference in behavior between the two is that of degree: rats are “more noysome then the little Mouse, for they live by stealth, and feed upon the same meat that they feede upon, and therefore as they exceede in quantity, so they devoure more, and doe farre more harme” (519-520).


This was a wonderful article. Ricky Rat doesn’t work nearly as well as Mickey Mouse. Thanks for this delightful and insightful piece.

Greg Hudson — January 22, 2020

This is a very well done article and timely with the Lunar New Year around the corner. Every thing the Folger does seems to be excellent.
Thank you and Happy New Year . . .

Michael Hollingsworth — January 22, 2020