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Mythical Egyptian Monster + Symbolism + Art History = Shakespeare

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

In honor of World Animal Day, we’ll explore Shakespeare’s references to dogs, lions, & wolves. What did they symbolize? How can this knowledge shape our interpretations of his plays? What do the ancient Egyptians have to do with this? Oh! And did I mention Petrarch’s in this one?

Let’s jump right in!


Basic Symbolism

The following animal symbolism guide is true throughout most of Shakespeare’s texts.

  • Dog = the fawner & flatterer

  • Lion = nobility, strength, ferocity

  • Wolf = has an “appetite”; also suggests Catholicism (ex. Henry VI)

Nighttime… There’s More to the Symbolism

Interestingly, symbolism doesn’t have to be confined to simple equal signs. There can be context attached as well! In the case of these three animals, that context is the night. This can easily be concluded by examining their unusually high number of appearances in nighttime narratives. Other nocturnal predatory creatures do not show up in such descriptions nearly as often.

Here’s the catch: Even though writers traditionally used the three animals in night descriptions for their predatory nature, Shakespeare rarely used them in his night chronicles to present a severe threat to humans. Basically, yes, they were predators but... they served a much higher purpose!

Before we continue, there’s one more thing you should know:

“In Elizabethan literature, descriptions of nighttime are most often formal pieces belonging to the rhetorical type chronographia, description of time. Chronographia, as one form of descriptio, is a delineation of a particular time (day or season) through the use of many apt and vivid details and events, the sum of which is meant to comprise the time being described.” (1)

Ok! Let’s move along!

Italian Art History + Ancient Egyptian God

Looking for more evidence that these animals were associated with time? Let us persuade you :)

In 1926, esteemed art historian Erwin Panofsky and his colleague, Fritz Saxl, theorized the meaning behind Titian’s The Allegory of Prudence (c. 1565.) The painting (pictured below) depicts a young man & a dog on the right, a middle-aged man & a lion in the middle, and an old man & a wolf on the left.

The Allegory of Prudence - Painting by Titian

Panofsky claimed, “the human heads represent the 'tripartition of Prudence', understood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to be a composite of memory, intelligence, and foresight, often associated with time, that is, with past, present, and future.”

NOTE: If you wish to read Richard Linche’s 16th-century description of the creature and its significance, you can find it below the Discussion section.

Panofsky drew a connection between this painting and a mythological creature: According to tradition, Serapis (a prominent god of Hellenistic Egypt) was typically accompanied by a three-headed monster (dog, lion, and wolf.) (For those of you who are staring at that windy thing encircling the beast - yes, that’s a snake.) Look at the painting and then at the Egyptian creature below. On a scale of 1-10, how similar do they seem? Panofsky thought they were pretty close...

Since no one knows how the ancient Egyptians interpreted this monster, one can only guess. In AD 400, a Roman named Macrobius took on the challenge and was so proud of his hypothesis that he published it so people like us could admire his talent centuries later. He deciphered this strange creature to be 'time', with the wolf representing the past, the lion the present, and the dog the future.

As interesting as Macrobius’s theory was, his fans soon forgot about it for… a while. That is until, as Panofsky put it, “the three-headed animal described by Macrobius re-entered upon the stage of Western literature and imagery.”

Skip a few years to 1338, when Petrarch jumps on the long-forgotten bandwagon and sides with Macrobius. Though Petrarch agrees the animals represent time, his view differs slightly as he associates the monster with Apollo rather than Serapis.

Yeah, we know, really exciting. All in all, not much changed. EXCEPT the theory was now back on people’s minds. Writers eagerly employed the juicy symbolism. And Shakespeare, of course, was one of them :)

Back to Night

Let’s quickly refresh ourselves before moving on. Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers used these animals in descriptions of the night, specifically ones that included death or at least its possibility. Thus, one might be inclined to view time as a destructive force, one that “moves man inexorably toward age and death.” (1) Very, very spooky.

Example from Shakespeare (Macbeth!)

Macbeth is set at night. Why? Murder is afoot... lots of it! As Macbeth is (rightfully) blamed for so many deaths, he is juxtaposed with the wolf in the following chronographia:

Now o'er the one half-world

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtain'd sleep; now witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate's offerings; and wither'd murder,

Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost. (II.I)