Word of the Day: Basilisk

January 31, 2011 in Word of the Day

If we include ‘basilisco-like’ in King John (I.i.244), there are nine recorded instances of ‘basilisk’ in Shakespeare’s works, and an additional four uses of the synonym ‘cockatrice’. A fabulous serpent said to be hatched from a cock’s egg and able kill with a glance (or with its breath) (OED 1), the cockatrice or basilisk is an appropriate point of comparison for the Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) – as his own mother grimly acknowledges:

DUCHESS.
O ill-dispersing wind of misery!–
O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatch’d to the world.
(Richard III IV.i.54)

But in fact Gloucester got to the analogy first; ruminating on the living obstacles between himself and the crown in Henry VI, Part III, the would-be King prophesies:

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk.
(III.ii.187)

Another Shakespearian villain associated with the mythological serpent – again, somewhat prophetically – is Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece: the mortal consequences of the rape are anticipated when his lustful gaze is compared to ‘a cockatrice’ dead-killing eye’ (l. 540). But it is especially fitting that Gloucester should bear the comparison twice. ‘Basilisk’ derives from the ancient Greek for ‘king’, the serpent being named, according to Pliny, for the spot on its head resembling a crown (cf. ‘basilisk’, OED 1). Medieval tradition bestowed a more explicitly crown-like comb or crest on the legendary serpent’s head, so that the basilisk really was a giant lizard wearing a crown – Richard III indeed.

Seventeenth-century depiction of a basilisk

‘Basilisk’ was also a type of very large cannon used from the Middle Ages until the sixteenth century (OED 3), so called because, like the legendary serpent, it had a habit of wiping out everything in view (one particularly famous basilisk, now housed at Dover Castle and weighing over two tonnes, is nicknamed ‘Queen Elizabeth’s pocket pistol’). There is mention of a military basilisk in Henry IV, Part I (II.iii.53), but of greater interest, perhaps, is the moment in Henry V when we see the two meanings of the word conflated:

QUEEN ISABEL.
So happy be the issue, brother England,
Of this good day and of this gracious meeting
As we are now glad to behold your eyes;
Your eyes, which hitherto have borne in them
Against the French that met them in their bent
The fatal balls of murdering basilisks.
The venom of such looks, we fairly hope,
Have lost their quality; and that this day
Shall change all griefs and quarrels into love.
(V.ii.12-20)

Lastly, it may be worth noting that Shakespeare resisted any bawdy puns on cockatrice, and made nothing of the association between basilisks, pocket pistols, cannon shot, and monarchical power…

Contributed by Victoria Coldham-Fussell

1 response to Word of the Day: Basilisk

  1. I seriously learned about a majority of this, but with that in mind, I still considered it turned out useful. Nice job!

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