Shakespeare in Pericles on how the rich and powerful are like whales who eat up the harding working “little fish” (1608)

William Shakespeare

In his later plays, William Shakespeare was very much concerned with the issue of good kingship. In this exchange from Pericles Prince of Tyre the ship-wrecked Prince Pericles overhears a conversation between some fishermen who discuss how rich and powerful men ("the drones") exploit those who have to work for a living (the "honey bees"):

Third Fish. Nay, master, said not I as much when I saw the porpus how he bounced and tumbled? they say they’re half fish half flesh; a plague on them! they ne’er come but I look to be washed. Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fish. Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.

Per. [Aside.] A pretty moral.

Third Fish. But master, if I had been the sexton, I would have been that day in the belfry.

Sec. Fish. Why, man?

Third Fish. Because he should have swallowed me too; and when I had been in his belly, I would have kept such a jangling of the bells, that he should never have left till he cast bells, steeple, church, and parish, up again. But if the good King Simonides were of my mind,—

Per. [Aside.] Simonides!

Third Fish. We would purge the land of these drones, that rob the bee of her honey.

Thanksgiving is upon us again and this time we have found a quotation from Shakespeare’s Pericles on fishing and the eating of fish. Far removed from the eating of turkeys, but eating nevertheless. This is another Erasmian example of a “philosopher of the kitchen” or, perhaps in this case, of a “philosopher of the fish nets”. Many of Shakespeare’s passages involving lesser or humorous characters read somewhat like parables. In this case, we have a quite serious discussion between “common” fishermen about the nature of survival in a dangerous marine environment and the nature of exploitation where the “big fish” (whales - people in Shakespeare’s day thought it was a fish not a mammal) eat up the “little fish”. Note that the reference here is to the “sexton” (a lowly official of the established church) who is a “drone” who feeds on the wealth of the labouring classes and who might be “purged” for “robbery” sometime in the future by the honest labouring fishermen; and the reference to the aristocratic pastime of tennis, where “the waters and the wind” turn men into tennis balls to play with (remember Henry’s taunting of the Dauphin in Henry V).