On the properties of wild men: the bestiary men of De proprietatibus rerum and Shakespeare’s Caliban

On the properties of wild men: the bestiary men of De proprietatibus rerum and Shakespeare’s Caliban

By David Moses (2005)

Introduction: This short article observes that while the figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest satisfies colonial and postcolonial readings of the play which see him as the ‘colonial other’, Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ encyclopaedia De proprietatibus rerum, or On the Properties of Things (1245) in John Trevisa’s translation (1398), can be seen to provide a more detailed analysis of his form and function. It is all too easy violently to break the surface tension of medieval bestiaries with current literary theory, which ‘reveals’ hidden meanings apparently available only to a modern, sophisticated, readership. The ‘wild men’ of the DPR certainly support the validity of colonial readings, but in a similar mode reveal Caliban’s ‘animal otherness’ and his kinship with the fantastical hybrids associated with the medieval paradigm. The purpose of this article is therefore to draw attention to the wild men and hybrids of the DPR less as unobserved analogues for the figure of Caliban but as types of figurative and illustrative beings, and thus to contextualise him in their mode of ‘animal other’.

The earliest critical claim for the impact of English translations of the DPR on the works of Shakespeare is 1897 when R. Steel notes its influence. Matrod’s statement of 1912 that ‘without the DPR the works of Shakespeare would not have existed’ is a notorious overemphasis, moderated by Boyer in 1919. Boyer recognises the importance of the DPR but delimits its influence to ‘a source of scientific knowledge for Elizabethan writers’ which subsequently offers a hermeneutic by which to explain ‘difficult’ passages in Shakespeare’s work. More recently, D. C. Greetham notes that the DPR has been tagged with the sobriquet of ‘Shakespeare’s encyclopaedia.’ John Hankins saw Batman’s edition as the analogue to Shakespeare’s thought on endless matters from the soul to the effect of the humours on the body. However, Batman’s efforts to revive interest in the medieval encyclopaedia were not successful enough to call for a second edition, and current thought is that the version most readily available to Shakespeare may indeed have been the Trevisa translation, of which there were several printed editions (Wynkyn de Worde 1491, 1495, 1496?).

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