Shakespeare’s much-maligned toads and frogs

Toads are described by Edward Topsell
Edward Topsell. The historie of serpents… 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

There may not be a more insulted character in all of Shakespeare’s canon than Richard III. The woman he’s wooing, Anne, calls him a hedgehog. In the very next scene, Queen Margaret calls him an “abortive, rooting hog,” a “bottled spider,” and a “poisonous bunch-backed toad” (Richard III I.3.239, 256, 260-261).

And this isn’t the only time the murderous and conniving Richard is called a toad in the play. Queen Elizabeth echoes Queen Margaret’s exact words (4.4.83), the Duchess calls him “Thou toad, thou toad” (4.4.149), and we’re back to Anne again for “Never hung poison on a fouler toad. / Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes” (1.2.162). Poor Richard!

Although really, perhaps we should say poor toads! The toad is everywhere in Shakespeare, and always maligned. Throughout his work, we get “venom toads” (Henry VI, Part III) and “swelling toads,” (Titus Andronicus), “heavy-gaited” (Richard II), “ugly and venomous,” (As You Like It), “foul” (Richard III and Othello), and “loathed toad[s]” (Romeo and Juliet). Along with beetles and bats, toads are one of the creepy “charms of Sycorax” in The Tempest, and twice—in Richard III and Cymbeline—does Shakespeare include them in a list with adders and spiders. In order to emphasize how much Juliet disdains her suitor, Paris, the Nurse compares him to a toad:

O, there
is a nobleman in town, one Paris, that would fain
lay knife aboard; but she, good soul, had as lief
see a toad, a very toad, as see him. (Romeo and Juliet 2.4.203-206)

The witch Sycorax with toads
Arthur Rackham. The witch Sycorax. Drawing, late 19th or early 20th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

But why would toads inspire so much revulsion? One reason is that both toads and frogs were widely assumed to be venomous. Speaking with even more than his usual confidence, Edward Topsell insists in his Historie of serpents (1608) that “all manner of Toades, both of the earth and of the water are venomous” and that “the toades of the Land, which doe descend into the Marshes, and so live in both elements, are most venomous, and the hotter the Country is, the more full they are of poison.” According to Topsell, “The byting of a Toade, although it be sildome,” causes “the body to swell and break.” Furthermore, the spit of a toad, if it falls on a man, “causeth all his hayre to fall off from his head.”

Frogs and toads were also associated with witches in Shakespeare’s day. Topsell suggests that “The Women-witches of auncient time which killed by poysoning, did much vse Toades in their confections.” Of course, Shakespeare’s famous witches use both frogs and toads, noting especially the toad’s poisonous nature:

In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ th’ charmèd pot. (Macbeth 4.1.4-9)

In reality, while many amphibians are poisonous (causing sickness via ingestion and/or absorption through your skin), there are no amphibians known to be venomous (causing sickness through a bite). Vampire frogs, sadly, are not a thing.

However, frogs and toads were associated with witches in another way, as well. In  A perfect discovery of witches, Thomas Ady relates how “there was an honest woman (so always formerly reputed) executed at Cambridge in the year 1645, for keeping a tame Frogge in a Box for sport and Phantasie.” While Ady stresses that “keeping things tame of several species is both lawful and common among very innocent harmless people,” people sometimes feared women—especially older, single, poor women—who kept pets, due to the belief that witches kept familiars (demons in the form of animals who helped to do a witch’s bidding).

Witch with toads and other familiars
Thomas Trevilian. Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Finally, frogs and toads were feared for their ability to swarm, sometimes in terrifying numbers. Much like mice, insects, and other swarming creatures, frogs and toads were thought capable of reproduction by spontaneous generation, enhancing their numbers, which sometimes appeared in surprising ways. Topsell describes how it once “rained frogs in such plentifull measure” in Rome and Greece “that all the houses and high-waies were filled with them.” At first, he says, the inhabitants tried to kill them all, but when they found that was impossible, they shut up their houses,

leaving no passage open, so much as a frog might creepe into, and yet notwithstanding all this diligence, their meat seething on the fire, or set on the table, could not be free from them, but continually they found frogs in it, so as at last they were inforced to forsake that Countrey.

Lest this story seem too unbelievable for his readers, Topsell assures that “these prodigious raines of frogs and Mice, little Fishes and stones, and such like thinges is not to be wondered at” for, as Topsell explains, just as wind over the mountains and seas can kick up dust and make hail, “so also doth it take up frogs and fishes, who being above in the ayre, must needes fall downe againe.”

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

Sometimes when we read science and natural history from the past, it can be tempting to feel a little smug about the difference between what we know now and what people knew then. After all, there are no venomous toads! In this case, however, Topsell’s conjecture is very close to the way scientists today attempt to explain the extremely rare, but documented, natural phenomenon of “rains” of fishes, frogs, and other creatures.

Today, frogs and toads have much more to fear from humans than we do from them (the occasional amphibian rain notwithstanding). Far from causing plagues, amphibians are currently being decimated by one: a deadly fungus, colloquially called Bd, spread through the international pet trade. But one thing remains the same: When considering frogs, toads, and all other creatures—both as they appear in the past and as we live with them today—it is good to remember what Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.187-188).

Next month on Wild Things, we’ll consider an animal that Topsell describes as having ears “like Angels wings, ships sailes, and rowing Oares.”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)