29. The Fable of the Eagle and the Beetle; And the Art of the Court in Cymbeline

In 3.3. of Cymbeline, Belarius has been unjustly banished by the King, and, in an act of revenge, kidnapped the King’s two sons and raised them as his own in the safety of a remote mountain cave. The playwright has clearly designed the scene on a fable in The Moral Philosophy of Doni of the eagle and the sharded beetle (or dung beetle)—a story that closely approximates Belarius’s situation.

In North’s beast tale, an eagle that nests on “the cliffs of mount Olympus” devours a poor hare that was a friend of the dung beetle, despite the latter’s warnings and protests. The beetle, to avenge the wrong, waited till the eagle flew out of sight, crawled up to her high nest and, being a dung-beetle, was able to roll all her eggs “out of the nest” and off the side of the cliff. The eagle then returns to find all her “young” chicks, which “were almost ready to be hatched,” at “the foot of the rock, broken and quashed all to pieces.” As the eagle cried and wailed, the dung beetle yelled: “Thou are even well served!” Then, he crawled deep “into his hole that the devil himself could not find him out” (47-47v).[i] The moral of the tale was that even lowly people, like Belarius in his mountain cave, can avenge themselves on the most powerful.

In the parallel scene in Cymbeline(3.3.8-28),Belarius tells the Princes, “We house i’th’ rock,” before he asks them to join him in “our mountain sport,” which is a kind of ritual Belarius has taught the three to enact in the vicinity of their cave. “Your legs are young,” he says, so he tells them to climb higher and “perceive me like a crow.” And from that height, as they survey the surrounding landscape, he asks them to consider all his stories about the dangers and double-dealings that occur in Princes’ courts. And from this high and distant perspective, they should realize they are much safer there, in their mountaincave, than even the King. Or, as Belarius puts it:

 And often, to our comfort, shall we find
 The sharded beetle in a safer hold
 Than is the full-winged eagle. (3.3.19-21) 

The Princes understand Belarius’s point, yet they yearn for new experiences. They want to roam: “We poor unfledged,” complains one Prince, referring to young chicks who still do not have feathers: “Have never winged from view o’th’ nest” (3.3.27-28).

Belarius was using North’s tale to compare himself to the less powerful beetle who has still managed to avenge himself on the eagle (i.e., the King), and the discussion includes many verbal echoes of the Doni tale: eagle, beetle, mount(ain), young, poor, hole/hold, of the nest, and the rock as a synonym for cliff. The exchange also reproduces many of the same images: the high mountain cave, a high flying bird of prey peering downward, young chicks unfledged, a flight out of view of the nest, and, of course, the dung beetle hiding in a hole that provides him more safety than the exposed and vulnerable eagle.

North’s DoniShakespeare’s Cymbeline
In the cliffs of Mount Olympus, there haunted a young Leveret, and an eagle spying her, marked her from where she sat and …came down to seize her.   The beetle fiercely turning to the eagle…  “time will come when I will be even with thee”… dogging her to her nest… found eggs … (the eagle being abroad) and rolled them quite out of the nest … with the fall they lay at the foot of the rock broken and quashed all to pieces … “Thou art even will served: thou wouldst not let my leveret alone,” and with that, he shrunk into his hole that the devil himself could not find him out. –46r-v  
  Belarius:
We house i’th’ rock
Now for our mountain sport. …
When you above perceive me like a crow …
And often, to our comfort, shall we find
The sharded beetle in a safer hold
Than is the full-winged eagle.
Guiderius:          … We poor unfledged
Have never winged from view o’th’ nest
–3.3.8-28  
In the cliffs of Mount Olympus … at the foot of the rockWe house i’th’ rock … Now for our mountain sport
the eagle being abroad … of the nestthe full-winged eagle … from view o’th’ nest
The beetle …shrunk into his hole that the devil himself could not find him out.shall we find
The sharded beetle in a safer hold

Remarkably, Belarius uses two more Northern metaphors in the same opening to this same scene. First, Belarius compares rising in court to climbing to a high top, which is then accompanied by the threat and fear of falling. That is, the more successful you are in a Prince’s court, the greater the fears and dangers. In the last set of parallels, Belarius compares himself to a weather-beaten fruit tree, which once overflowed with fruit and leaves, with branches hanging downward, but now wind, storm, and gatherers have left the tree bare, taking all its fruit and leaves. Still the tree, though bare to weather, will persevere. These also derive from North:

North’s Doni and The DialShakespeare’s Cymbeline and 3 Henry VI
  Mule: to know to behave themselves in court is another art… But to me that must remain in Princes Court, I…must use every one with art
Ass: …be wise go not to the Courta little axe overthroweth a great oak and he that climbeth up to the tops of trees, falling hath the greater bruise… –Doni 28r-v, 30  

I never met or spake with man that was contented with the court: For if he be crept in favour, he feareth every hour to fallThe Dial 591

to climb up on high for fear of fallingThe Dial 710

if we be high, we weep always for fear of falling-The Dial 507  
    … the art o’ the court,
As hard to leave as keep, whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slipp’ry that
The fear’s as bad as falling Cymbeline 3.3.46-49    

a little axe hews down and fells the hardest timber’d oak –3 Henry VI 2.1.54-5
  And to such a tree, though evil fortune do cleave, … the leaves of their favours dry, they gather the fruits of his travels, they cut the bough of his offices, they bow the highest of his branches downwards; yet in the end though of the winds he be beaten, he shall never be overcome. —The Dial 541        …Then was I as a tree
Whose boughs did bend with fruit. But in one night,  
A storm, or robbery, call it what you will,   Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves,   And left me bare to weather. — Cymbeline 3.3.60-64
court is another art; climbeth up to top of trees; fallingArt o’ the court; top to climb Is certain falling
the court, feathethfallThe court, fearfalling
a little axe overthroweth … oaka little axe hews down … oak (3H6)
a tree, bough, branches-downward, winds-beaten, gather-fruitsa tree, boughs did bend, storm-shook, robbery-fruit

It goes without saying that the use of the eagle and the beetle fable is unique. This necessarily derives from the fables of Bidpai, which were the Indian beast tales that North was translating in his Moral Philosophy of Doni.There is no other analogous story in sixteenth century of the eagle and the beetle that had been translated into English. The other two analogies were also rare—although it is difficult to determine how rare.


[i] In the 1570 edition of Doni, two folios in a row are numbered “45,” there is no “46,” then three folios in a row are numbered “47.” If we count the second folio “45” as “46,” then the eagle and beetle tale begins on the first and “real” page 47.

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