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  • Writer's picturePlanet PhD

Shakespeare's fantastic beasts (and where to find them)

This week we find out how animals act as a hidden language in early modern drama...

Our guest this week is Nicole Mennell, a PhD student at the University of Sussex who submitted her thesis,‘Shakespeare’s Sovereign Beasts: Human-Animal Relations and Political Discourse in Early Modern Drama’ , in January 2019.

Animals often feature in Shakespeare plays; whether a girl fleeing her attackers is portrayed as a doe, a member of the royal court is described as a fox, or animal metaphors are used richly in dialogue. This 'hidden language' reveals much about the time in which the plays were written, and can relate directly to the political discourse of the period, which is the focus of Nicole's work. She specifically looks at how the three "H"s - horses, hawks and hounds - relate to politics in Shakespeare plays.

This leads us to talk about the Lion King, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and heraldry. Did you know that Shakespeare is thought to have designed his own coat of arms, his right to which was later disputed?

Nicole shares some tips on PhD life, including perfectionism, the pressure of generating an 'original contribution to knowledge', writers' block and how thesis bootcamp helped her to move forward in her writing.

"There's that thought that "everything I write has to be perfect because it's the PhD" and it completely shut down all productivity"

We also speak about aspects outside of PhD study, including Widening Participation outreach work. Nicole came from a widening participation background and has made addressing access to studying humanities for students of all backgrounds a priority during her studies. We also speak about how the difficulties of academic publishing led to Nicole co-founding the Brief Encounters journal, which provides students funded by the Consortium for the Humanities and Arts South-East England (CHASE) with an opportunity to publish short academic and creative pieces. Having just released their third edition, Brief Encounters is going from strength to strength - check it out, and if you are a CHASE scholar, consider submitting!

In a 3-minute bonus section at the end of the episode (~29m40s) we bring it back to bees (couldn't help it!). Nicole reads a famous passage from Shakespeare's Henry V in which the Archbishop of Canterbury convinces the young King to make war on France, using a beautiful metaphor of the honey bee. Shakey mixed up his genders and the honey bee Queen is a "King"... but we'll forgive him!

Nicole Mennell is (was!) a doctoral candidate within the Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies at the University of Sussex. Her thesis, ‘Shakespeare’s Sovereign Beasts: Human-Animal Relations and Political Discourse in Early Modern Drama’ (which she submitted in January 2019), explores the connections made between figures of sovereignty and animals in early modern drama. Nicole’s chapter, ‘“The Dignity of Mankind”: Edward Tyson's Anatomie of a Pygmy and the Ape-Man Boundary’ was recently published in the edited collection Seeing Animals After Derrida (2018). She also has a forthcoming chapter on Shakespeare’s lions in The Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Animals. Nicole is currently writing a commissioned article on ‘Animal Studies in the Renaissance’ for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

Before embarking on her PhD, Nicole undertook an internship at the National Portrait Gallery, where she conducted research for a proposed exhibition on ‘man and beast’ in portraiture. During her doctoral studies, she co-organised several academic events, including the London Renaissance Seminar on Animal Lives in Early Modern Culture. Nicole is currently a research assistant for the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Hidden Persuaders’ at Birkbeck College, University of London, which explores the impact of ‘brainwashing’ on conceptions of the human. 

The CHASE Brief Encounters journal can be found at:

Also check out pieces Nicole has written for the public, one about animal made objects ( and another on compassionate consumption (

Follow Nicole on Twitter: @NicoleMennell

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