“I’m a wild one…”: the wild men of Shakespeare

‘What is man,

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more’

On inquiring what it means to be human, Hamlet finds himself questioning the difference between man and animal, and if indeed they are all that different. In his plays Shakespeare presents us with a number of characters with a folkloric origin which Lear calls ‘unaccomodated man’ – the wild man – illustrated here from 2 contemporary ballads.

SantaWildman (1) Wild man elizabethanThe wild man can be traced back to both classical mythology and European folklore. Romulus who was reared by a she-wolf, Hercules dressed in a lion skin and carrying a club, satyrs, fauns, and other such characters lived happily with nature. Another example is the Roman god Sylvanus – a tutelary deity of woods and fields. As protector of forests (sylvestris deus), he especially presided over plantations and delighted in trees growing wild. He is also described as a god watching over the fields and husbandmen, protecting in particular the boundaries between wild and cultivated land.

2Alternatively, the wild man was a symbol that primitive existence was truly bestial and that society, through collective effort and human reason was the only way of improving the quality of life. In Europe during the middle ages there were many rumours of forest dwelling wild folk living in a state of nature. These savages were feared as the enemy of man and were associated with demons of the earth and ghosts of the underworld. Another association was with elves and fairies of country lore, impish, not always kindly and connected with vegetation and fertility.

In Book 1 of Spenser’s the Faerie Queene we meet a ‘salvage nation’ who live at ease with nature. They recognize the holiness of Una and protect her even if they cant understand her notion of true faith. In Book 3 conversely, there is a goat-herding tribe who are remarkable for their unrestrained sexuality. With bagpipes, dances and garlands they celebrate the acquisition of the strumpet Hellenore as their Maylady – which is what they call her. We are reminded here of a passage from Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses (1583) raging against the May Day Celebrations:

‘then they have their Hobby-horses, dragons, and other Antiques, together with their baudie pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal, then marche these heathen company towards the Church or churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumpts dancing, their bells jingling, their hankerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen.’

Caliban is described in the first folio list of characters as ‘salvage and deformed’. Edmund Malone described his costuming as ‘a large bear skin, or the skin of some other animal; and he is usually represented with long shaggy hair.’ His fishiness could be attributed to his smell considering he spends time among the rocky shores, rather than to his appearance. Trinculo calls him a moon-calf. This refers to one of many items of lore connected with the moon. The moon-calf was a false conception, a foetus imperfectly formed due to the influence of the moon. Caliban’s deformity, however, derives from a different area of lore. In the days of witchcraft it was supposed that devils called incubi and succubi roamed the earth with the express purpose of tempting people to abandon their purity of life. Most records of these creatures came from monasteries and convents and were a convenient way of covering up the sexual activity of supposedly celibate orders. Badly deformed children were suspected of having such undesirable parentage. In this instance we know that Caliban’s mother was a witch and that he was ‘got by the devil himself’.

Caliban...Cambion_or_MooncalfHowever, Caliban’s intelligence and emotional development is far above the usual literary and mythological breed of savage man. When he is denied the pleasure of Miranda’s bed and forced to serve under Prospero’s will he expresses a very human bitterness:

When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’st me, and made much of me

And then I lov’d thee,

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle.


Renaissance literature provides us with many examples of the civilised man turned savage, whether due to banishment or exile, or due to betrayal in love or friendship.

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

In Pericles the hero displays the characteristics of the wild man. Believing both his wife and daughter to be dead, he swears never to wash his face, nor cut his hairs. And when his ship reaches Mytilene we are told in Act 5 Scene 1 that  ‘for this three month he hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief.’ Having found incest, fraud and jealously among men, having lost those he held most dear, and seeing nature indifferent to justice and misery, he becomes less than human in his suffering. In his reunion with Marina we are reminded of Edgar’s words at his own reconciliation with his despairing father ‘Twixt two extremes of passion , joy and grief’ they meet. Through the extreme depth of suffering that we see physically manifested, a reaction of extreme cathartic joy is reached.

Edgar victorianEdgar embodies many of the characteristics identified as that of the wild man but he is unlike any other. He dramatizes a vision of man brought near to beast – appropriate in a play full of animal imagery and crowded with comparisons of man to animal. As Bedlam beggar, he will mortify his flesh, elf all his hair in knots, grime his face with filth and take the ‘basest and most poorest shape/That ever penury, in contempt of man, /Brought near to beast.’ Through his encounter with Poor Tom, Lear reaches an awareness of the nature of humanity. If man is inherently different from animal, the distinction between the two lies not with physical or material qualities, but with rational and spiritual values – duty, affection, kindness, pity, fortitude and forgiveness. As critic G M Princiss stated:

In enacting the role of Poor Tom, Edgar embodies the lowest pitch of human existence. However, through his various impersonations we watch him re-establish order and hierarchy among humanity. Starting with the bare, forked animal, ‘the thing itself’, Edgar by turns becomes peasant, soldier, knight incognito and perhaps even king. He stands for the great range of human potential in behaviour and class and at the same time reminds us of the narrow distance between noblemen and beggar, accommodated man and bare forked animal. He portrays not only man’s closeness to the beast but his distance from it. And in emphasizing man’s common humanity, Edgar is perhaps the most powerful, poignant and comprehensive presentation of the savage man in literature. In the words of Beckett’s tramps, ‘He’s all humanity’.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian


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