Honey, Bees, and the Henriad: Apiarian Politics and

Amy L. Tigner
University of Texas, Arlington
SAA Paper Abstract:
Honey, Bees, and the Henriad:
Apiarian Politics and Culinary Economy in Early Modern England
At the beginning of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury employs an extended metaphor
of honeybees to convince the young King Henry to invade France and assert his claim to the
French throne:
For so work the honey-bees
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king, and officers of sorts
Where some like magistrates correct at home;
Others like merchants venture trade abroad;
Others like soldiers, armed in this stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who busied in his majesty surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens lading up the honey
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The Sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.1 (Henry V 1.2.187-204)
In this passage, Canterbury enumerates the various stations of the bees, beginning with a
King (the Queen was gendered male until the early seventeenth century), then moving to
officers, merchants, soldiers, masons, civil citizens, porters, and ending with the “lazy
yawning drone,” to make the argument that the King could safely take a fourth of his troops
to fight in France and leave the rest to defend the homeland. Presenting bees as a model for
human society, Canterbury (or Shakespeare) calls upon a long classical and Judeo-Christian
tradition that extends from the Hebrew bible to Virgil and to Augustine. Canterbury’s
metaphor highlights the human political hierarchy inherent in bee society, yet the allusion to
honeybees cannot help but also reference their use-value—that of producing honey.
Beneficial in both culinary and medicinal dietary regimes, honey was a source of sweetness
that could be produced domestically in the English garden as opposed to the expensive sugar
(so beloved by Falstaff to put in his foreign-produced sack) that had to be imported from
abroad. This paper begins with the “staging” of honey and bees in the Henriad and then
All Shakespeare quotations are from William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Walter Cohen Stephen
Greenblatt, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).
looks to the domestic production and consumption of honey, arguing that this sweet
commodity functions as a temperature gauge that measures the political and economic
environment of late sixteenth century England.