Shakespeare and the snakehandlers: Venom, vermin, and the circulation of eco-social energy in Renaissance drama

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Early modern drama does not ‘give good report of the worm’ but tends to vilify reptiles as well as amphibians and arachnids to underprop anthropocentrism and a hierarchical taxonomy that denigrates closeness to the earth. This chapter dissects the negative depictions of snakes, spiders, and toads in early modern drama, exposing how they conspire with Tudor vermin laws and justify the persecution of poisonous or allegedly poisonous creatures. Early modern naturalists classified more species as venomous or attributed higher toxicity to them than we now know to be the case; moreover, representations of venomous creatures could reinforce not only mistrust of the differently abled but also xenophobic attitudes. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra both perpetrates and spoofs a zoological orientalism, sensationalising the portrayal of Eastern and African fauna as biologically other in ways that mirror early modern caricatures of the racial otherness of the populace (and vice versa). Antony and Cleopatra draws a sharp divide between civilised Rome and savage Africa, but in post-Reformation England, Italy’s geographic proximity to Africa made it exotic by association. The chapter considers Cleopatra’s suicide scene alongside early modern accounts of Italian snakehandling acts. Whereas Protestant naturalists sought to debunk snakehandling as a dubious form of Catholic street theatre, Shakespeare de-sacralises a doctrinally suspect miracle play-cum-carnival show and transforms it into secular art. The chapter uncoils an important parallel to Stephen Greenblatt’s influential work on theatre and exorcism with an ecocritical update: social energy can flow from and circulate back to impact the more-than-human world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPoison on the early modern English stage
Subtitle of host publicationPlants, paints and potions
EditorsBill Angus, Lisa Hopkins, Kibrina Davey
PublisherManchester University Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781526159915, 9781526159939
ISBN (Print)9781526159922
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2023

Cite this