As a fisherman, Will Shakespeare may have lacked the lusty fervor of Hemingway and the discernment of Izaak Walton, but he was in many ways a more compleat angler than either.
From the time he was a young man Shakespeare fished English streams from Gloucestershire to Warwickshire, and he enjoyed angling even more than archery, falconry and the other sports at which he excelled. The historical authority for this is H.N. Ellacombe, author of Shakespeare as an Angler (1883), but evidence is plain throughout the Bard's works. His lines have numerous species of fish attached to them, and he knowledgeably describes many kinds of sea life, from the backward-crawling crab and the stinking mackerel down the evolutionary ladder to the lowly barnacle. "Give me mine angle...we'll to the river," he writes in one place, "there I will betray the tawny-finned fishes!" "The world is my oyster," he exclaims elsewhere, and he understood that "there is a river in Macedon, and there is also a river at Monmouth...and there is salmon in both." Beyond this, Shakespeare knew all the fish stories. In one passage he tells of wild geese hatched from barnacles on trees; in another of "courser's hair," i.e., horsehair laid in stagnant water from which worms and sea serpents were supposed to come alive. In the first act of Antony and Cleopatra he recounts one of fishing's oldest pranks. " 'Twas merry when you wagered on your angling," Charmian says to her queen, "when your diver did hang a salt-fish on his [Antony's] hook, which he with fervency drew up!"
Shakespeare would not have agreed with Dr. Johnson that bottom fishing "consisted of a stick and a string, with a hook at one end and a fool at the other." It seems certain from lines he gives fat Falstaff that the poet trolled in a boat for pike, and he certainly knew of "the syxte maners of angling with dubbed hoke for the troughts and gray-line...moving the flye as if he living were." But Shakespeare was primarily a bottom fisherman, as he angled for perch, bream, pike and trout.
Shakespeare understood and enjoyed this pastime as he did most commonplace things. Because the rivers he fished were strong and deep, it is not likely that he used a float, relying instead on the feel of handline or pole. His plays, however, show him to have had at least a working knowledge of other forms of angling, and his accounts of different fish are always accurate. He mentions the herring, gurnet, prawn, pilchard, dogfish, frog, shrimp, cockle, mussel, and at least three dozen other forms of sea life. He writes in one place of trolling for "the puissant pike" and mentions twice "the trout that must be caught with tickling" around the gills (a method popular with poachers). He seems familiar, as well, with cormorant fishing, common in England when these birds were trained to dive for fish in shallow rivers.
May 21, 1967
For bait the Bard no doubt used the earthworms he referred to when he wrote that "a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king," and he may even have anticipated the advice Izaak Walton later put into words: "Thus use your frog...Put your hook, I mean the arming wire, through his mouth, and out at his gills...or tie the frog's leg...to the armed wire; and in so doing, use him as though you loved him." Shakespeare tells in one place of how "the young dace be a bait for the old pike," and his plays frequently mentioned gudgeon and other bait. When Shylock in the Merchant of Venice speaks of using a rival's heart "to bait for fish withal," he is not referring to an unusual practice. The early fishing manuals feature many recipes for making different baits which fish were supposed to find delicious, including one called "man's fat."
Where Shakespeare fished is another matter. He probably did not do much angling near his home at Stratford-on-Avon, since the Warwickshire Avon has never ranked high as a fishing river. There is a legend, however, supposedly supported by a quotation in one of his plays, that he fished a whirlpool at the base of Stratford's Clopton Bridge. Neither is Shakespeare known to have favored any waters near London. His work is studded with references to sea life—cod, dolphin, porpoise, shark, whale—but London meant work for the playwright and no time for angling.
It is known that Shakespeare was caught poaching on the estates of Sir Thomas Lucy (whom, if the story is true, he later satirized in Henry IV as Justice Shallow). After that he was most likely forced to retreat to the neighboring county of Gloucester. He might have fished the upper reaches of the Dove in Derbyshire—in Walton's words, "that finest of rivers I ever saw, and the fullest of fish"—but more probably he confined himself, like many gentlemen sportsmen of the day, to the Cotswold Hills that stretch through Gloucestershire to Warwickshire. It is interesting to note that his Henry IV, which supports this contention by its mention of many contemporary Gloucester families, has more references to fishing than any other of his plays, and he also mentions, in Richard II, the "high wild hills" of Gloucestershire, "rough, uneven," where he lived in a little town called Dursley. Nearby lived John Dennis, a Gloucestershire squire and author of the Secrets of Angling.
Dennis was one of the first and best writers on fishing. Some of his poetry is said to have been quoted and copied by Izaak Walton, and it is likely that Shakespeare met and became friendly with this man whose interests were so close to his own. Shakespeare, always eager for a bargain, would not have passed up such an alliance, especially considering, as one writer points out, that the squire's personal property stretched "from Oldbury-on-the-Hills, then open and unenclosed...skirted by the Forest of Kingswood on the north, and the Royal Chase of Kingswood on the south, and watered by many small streams." The two poets could have fished side by side in the streams of this paradise for sportsmen. On the western side of the Cotswolds, they would have tried the waters running a short way to the Severn, streams which in their day were excellent for trout. On the eastern side, they would have spent their time angling for the big ones in the many waters that run long courses as feeders of the Thames. Today's angler can be most certain that Shakespeare fished before him in these Cotswold streams, and many of them, such as the Colne and Windrush, are still ranked among the best English trout grounds. The playwright learned in this beautiful country most of the fishing arts and lore revealed in his plays; he rested by these rivers and conceived plays and poetry rich with descriptions of nature recorded with barometerlike accuracy. Here he found "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything."