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Around the time of the millennium, the BBC ran a public vote to determine the greatest Briton. Winston Churchill polled the highest number of votes by some considerable margin. William Shakespeare was one of the ten contenders and from memory ended up in fourth or fifth spot.
Having struggled with the delights of ‘O’ level English literature, I agreed entirely with the thoughts of Jeremy Clarkson. He was leading the campaign for eventual runner up, Isambard Brunel. The former Top Gear man argued that Shakespeare had caused more suffering to school children than anyone else in English history. I knew what he meant as, during my teenage years, I dreaded having to learn and thereafter recite huge chunks of Julius Caesar and other scripts. There seemed to be no purpose. However, my English teacher possibly missed a trick. For if there was a possibility Shakespeare might have been an angler, then I might have looked at his work in an entirely different light.
Those who argue that he wasn’t an angler include Sir Harris Nicolas. In his book, 'Walton’s Angler', he lists angling related quotations from various poets and authors. Only four can be attributed to the Stratford bard. Likewise, Mr Roach Smith in the first edition of 'Rural Life of Shakespeare' lists the same four quotations. However, the Reverend Henry Nicholson Ellacombe takes the opposite view. In his book entitled 'Shakespeare as an Angler', first published in 1883, he is in little doubt that Shakespeare was a successful angler. Ellacombe goes on to hypothesise that Shakespeare had probably enjoyed many a day’s fishing in the Warwickshire and Gloucestershire streams.
Direct descriptions of fishing appear on around a dozen occasions in Shakespeare’s works. In 'Much ado about Nothing', Claudio states "bait the hook well, this fish will bite". In 'Anthony and Cleopatra', "he fishes, drinks and casts the lamps of night in revel". In 'Henry IV', Pistol is heard to utter, "hold hook and line, say I". In 'Troilus and Cressida', the former states "while others fish with craft for great opinion, I with great truth catch mere simplicity".
Shakespeare was not an elitist angler. He only refers to salmon twice in his works, indicating that he probably only knew these species as food. Fluellen in 'Henry IV' states"‘there is a river in Macedaton and there is, moreover a river at Monmouth, it is called the Wye at Monmouth, but it is out of my prains, what is the name of the other river, but tis all one, t'is so like as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both". The other reference to salmon appears in 'Othello' "she that in wisdom never was so frail, to change the ceds head for a salmon’s tail". Trout get just two mentions in his works. Maria in 'Twelfth Night' would de be committing a fisheries offence these days. "Lie thou there, for here comes the trout, that must be caught with tickling."
Falstaff quotes this snappy line "if the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason, in the law of nature, but I may snap at him".
Carp were held in high esteem in Shakespeare’s time as a fish easy to rear and keep in fish ponds and therefore readily available for the table at any time. Polonius in 'Hamlet' Act III utters, "your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth".
The tench, the physician of fishes, gets some half decent PR in 'Henry IV'. ‘I am stung like a tench’. Scholars has puzzled over its meaning but Ellacombe argues that it probably refers to the then popular notion that tench, in sucking the slimy substance secreted on their scales, were biting and nibbling at each other.
Eels would have been extremely abundant in Elizabethan times. Maybe that’s why they appear on at least six occasions in Shakespeare’s works. In 'Labours love lost', "I will praise an eel with the same praise. What? That an eel is ingenious? That an eel is quick?" Fool in 'King Lear' refers to residents of the East End love of eels "Cry to it, nucnle, as the cockney did to the eels, when she put ‘em in the paste alive". The eel is still revered in Cockney land to this day.
Loach, minnow and thankfully the gudgeon all appear in the Bard’s works. The loach is mentioned once by the second carrier in 'Henry IV': "your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach", which one assumes is a reference to the production by loach of large numbers of offspring.
Minnows are mentioned three times. One example is of 'Coriolanus' "hear this, you Triton of the minnows". The gudgeon get its 15 minutes of fame in the 'Merchant of Venice', "I’ll tell thee more of this another time, but fish not with this melancholy bait, for this fool’s gudgeon, this opinion".
Perhaps the strongest evidence of Shakespeare’s love of angling may be found in the descriptions of rivers and riverside scenery, coupled with the almost affectionate way in which he speaks of brooks, streams and their pleasant banks and of holy thoughts and the quiet current of the clear rippling stream.
It’s fun to speculate on venues where Shakespeare could have wet a line. The Warwickshire Avon is a likely venue, not least because we know the young Shakespeare grew up here. Some of its tributaries were known to hold trout in the middle ages. There is a tradition that Shakespeare spent part of his life in Dursley so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Bard fished the stream that flowed into the Severn estuary. On the other side of the Cotswolds, within a realistic travelling distance were such great trout streams such as the Colne and the Windrush, both Thames tributaries. Of course, much of this is speculation and it will never be proved for certain that Shakespeare was an angler, but I for one am convinced by Ellacombe’s evidence. What do you think?
The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.