Although the term is still in use, to call someone who is odd, eccentric or peculiar a ‘strange fish’ is not as common as it once was. The expression reached its peak in Elizabethan times, when strange fish were regularly exhibited throughout the country. Shakespeare alludes to the phenomena twice, in The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale. When Trinculo encounters Caliban, he says,
“What have we here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not of the newest Poor-John. A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man! and his fins like arms!”
The Tempest Act 2 Scene 2.
And Autolycus, talking of songs, says
“Here's another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon the coast, on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her: the ballad is very pitiful and as true.”
The Winter’s Tale Act 4 Scene 4
Town dwellers in particular would pay their penny to see all sorts of marine oddities and fleshy monsters. And there were many to see. Old Henry Peacham, that ‘compleat gentleman’, lists, amongst other things,
“The White Hall whale-bones, the silver Bason i' Chester;
The live-caught Dog-fish, the Wolfe and Harry the Lyon,
Hunks of the Beare-garden, to be feared, if he be nigh on.”
Another playwright, Jasper Mayne, in his 1639 The City Match, also alludes to the practice,
“Faith, I do grantThis is the strangest fish. Yon I have hungHis other picture in the fields, where someSay 'tis an o'ergrown porpoise; others say,'Tis the fish caught in Cheshire; one, to whomThe rest agree, said 'twas a mermaid.”
There is much fun to follow, when a man is dressed as a great fish and exhibited. The play was first performed at Whitehall, before King Charles I. In 1568, Timothy Granger described,
“A moste true and marvellous straunge wonder the lyke hath seldom been seene of xvii Monstrous fishes taken in Suffolke at Downam Brydge, within a myle of Ipswiche, the xi daye of October in the yeare of our Lorde God 1568.”
|A Monstrous Fish|
An account is entered in Registers of the Stationers’ Company of 1595 of,
“A strange and hughe fishe dryven on the Sandes at Outhorne in Holdernes, in Februarye,”
and in 1604, the books of the same Company record,
“A strange reporte of a monstrous fish that appeared in the form of a woman from her waist upward, seene in the sea.”
|Another Strange Fish|
In 1704, a broadsheet described many strange prognostications and omens, including that,
“…in Orford in Sussex, certain Fisher-men drew up in their Net a Hairy Creature out of the Sea, in all Proportions like a Man, which was exposed to the Sight of Thousands, living upon Flesh, but in the end stole from his Keepers and got to sea again,”
before describing a porpoise, caught and displayed at Spittle-Fields, which had ventured up-river, seemingly to escape storms at sea. It was described as a Sea-Hog, on account of its size and flesh, and was shown at the Black Swan alehouse on New Fleet Street.
One curious exhibit was the Sea-Bishop, illustrated in Costume by Johannes Sluper, published in Antwerp in 1572, which looks suspiciously like a modified squid. Apparently, the Bishop was brought before the King, who perceived that he wished to return to his own habitat, so he was carried back to the sea, into which he cast himself.
In the same work is also the Sea-Monk, another wonder of the deep, as if there are entire orders of clergy beneath the waves. As late as the 1860s, people paid to see the marvels – a ‘talking fish’ was displayed in provincial England, which, it turns out, was a sea-lion communicating with its natural cry.