“Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen”: Hedgehogs in Shakespeare’s plays and the early modern imagination

Hedgehog
Edward Topsell. The historie of foure-footed beastes. 1607. FOLGER STC 24123 copy 1

While the global population of European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) is stable, their numbers have been rapidly declining in the UK for decades, especially in rural areas. This has led to a huge upswell of conservation efforts as people try to protect the UK’s only spiny mammal, and one of these efforts is centered in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, which has dubbed itself a Hedgehog-Friendly Town.

Stratford’s most famous resident paints a less-than-flattering picture of the humble hedgehog, however. In Richard III, for instance, Richard goads Anne about her father-in-law, King Henry VI, whom Richard has killed (according to Shakespeare, at least). Richard denies it until Anne, fed up, asks him the direct question:

ANNE
Didst thou not kill this king?

RICHARD
I grant you.

ANNE
Dost grant me, hedgehog? Then, God grant me too
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed.
O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous. (1.2.108-111)

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as an example of an obsolete meaning of hedgehog as describing “a person who is regardless of others’ feelings.” What has such a relatively gentle (although visually fierce) animal done to deserve this comparison? The Folger Edition of the play, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, suggests that Anne’s epithet might be a mocking reference to Richard’s emblem, the boar.

Image of a boar
Armorial bearings of noblemen and knights [manuscript] : Queen Elizabeth et ante arranged as an ordinary of crests, 1833. FOLGER M.a.280
With their turned-up snouts and long squat bodies, hedgehogs certainly look a little like boars (or, you know, hogs!). This comparison is evident in Macbeth, as well, when the witches use an alternative name for the hedgehog:

FIRST WITCH           Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.
SECOND WITCH      Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whined.
THIRD WITCH          Harpier cries “’Tis time, ’tis time!” (4.1.1-3)

The witches in Macbeth reference hedgehogs
Macbeth, IV, 1, Macbeth in witches cave / [Johann Heinrich Ramberg]. 1829. FOLGER ART Box R167 no.20 (size L)
It makes sense that the witches call upon a hedgehog along with the brinded (striped) cat and the harpier (harpy), as hedgehogs were considered to have somewhat magical properties of their own, at least when it came to the weather. In his 1607 book Historie of four-footed beasts, Edward Topsell describes how both tame and wild hedgehogs seem to have an uncanny foreknowledge of changes in the wind:

When they hide themselves in their den, they have a naturall understanding of the turning of the wind, South and North, and they that are norished tame in houses, immediatly before that change remove from one Wal to another: the wild ones have two holes in their cave, the one north, thother south, observing to stop the mouth against the wind, as the skiful mariner to stiere & turne the rudder or sails, for which occasion Aristotle saith, that some have held opinion, that they do naturally fore-know the chang of weather.

In other places, Shakespeare emphasizes the hedgehog’s most defining feature, those sharp prickles. In his famous speech complaining about Prospero’s ill treatment of him, Caliban specifically cites hedgehogs as one of the punishments he fears. “For every trifle,” or perceived misbehavior, Caliban says, creatures are set upon him, including “hedgehogs which / Lie tumbling in [his] barefoot way and mount / Their pricks at [his] footfall” (2.2.10-12). In their song protecting Titania, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also reference hedgehogs:

 You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen. (2.2.9-12)

When you take all these references together, it seems perhaps Shakespeare agreed with Thomas Playfere, who said in a sermon about the perils of “worldly delight” that although “a hedgehogge seemes to be but a poore silly creature, not likely to doe any great harme, yet indeede it is full of bristles or prickles, whereby it may annoy a man very shrewdly.”

But some early modern people painted more sympathetic pictures of the hedgehog. For example, stories of hedgehogs using their skewer-like prickles to transport juicy fruit home were frequently depicted in medieval art and widely disseminated in bestiaries and natural histories of Shakespeare’s day. As Topsell writes about the hedgehog:

His meate is Apples, Wormes, or Grapes; When he findeth Apples or Grapes on the earth, hee rowleth himselfe uppon them, untill he have filled all his prickles, and then carrieth them home to his den, never bearing above one in his mouth. And if it fortun that one of them fall off by the way, he likewise shaketh of all the residue, and walloweth upon them a fresh, untill they be all setled upon his backe againe, so foorth hee goeth, making a noyse like a cart wheale. And if hee have any young ones in his nest, they pull of his load wherewithall he is loaded, eating thereof what they please, and laying uppe the residue for the time to come.

In reality, European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) almost exclusively eat worms, beetles, and other insects. Domesticated hedgehogs may have enjoyed a daintier diet in early modern homes, however: “When they are nourished at home in houses and brought up tame, they drinke both Milke and Wine.” (With respect for our friend Topsell, please don’t give hedgehogs milk, and definitely don’t give them wine! If you find an injured hedgehog, you can find good information on caring for it here.)

Early modern people did not usually eat hedgehogs, but they found culinary inspiration in the hedgehog’s peculiar form. Much like the cute hedgehog-shaped cakes popular at children’s birthday parties today, this recipe for hedgehog pudding (oneofTHREE hedgehog-related recipes from a 17th-century cookbook in the Folger collection) makes a pudding shaped like a hedgehog and covered with almonds to mimic spines. No actual hedgehogs should be harmed in the making of hedgehog pudding!

Recipe for hedgehog pudding

To make a heg-hoge Pudding

“Take 3 halfe penny white loafes grate them very small, put to it a little salt some powder of mace, a quarter of a pound sugar, halfe a pound of beefe suet, 11 egs two of them without the whites, a pinte of thick creame, work theis together, and tye it up round in a napkin, let the water boile, then put it in for two howers, then take it up and stick it ouer with blanched almonds, power sweet butter on it and serve it with sugar.”

Next month on Wild Things, we’ll look at two animals that were supposed to live on air, engender spontaneously, and that were famous for their venom.

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