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The Tempest, Act I, scene 2, lines 326-331:

For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins
Shall forth at vast of night that they may work
All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb
, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ‘em.

If the meaning of 'honeycomb' is 'a wax structure containing many small holes, made by bees to store their honey' (Cambridge online dictionary), these lines do not make much sense! Shakespeare must have meant something else by 'honeycomb' for the imagery here to work, but I cannot find any confirmation of this anywhere.

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  • I'd guess it means dense and closely-packed pinching as close together as the cells of a honeycomb (think of a rash with lots of little bites or spots almost touching each other), but this literary interpretation seems a matter for Literature SE. Certainly I can't find any evidence that honeycomb ever meant anything other than the usual.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 28, 2023 at 9:33
  • The explanation is very simple, "thick" here means "dense". This is not really very archaic, for example, "a forest thick with trees" or "tourists are thick on the ground in summer..." etc.
    – Fattie
    Jun 29, 2023 at 14:06
  • 2
    Until the mid-15th century, hedgehogs were commonly called urchins in England. And in some parts of England they are still called urchins. So, to be pinched = to be pricked.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 29, 2023 at 15:03
  • I understood 'thick' as 'swollen', when – apparently – it meant 'close to each other', as in 'to be as thick as thieves'. Sorry, Bard! I like controversy!
    – user58319
    Jun 29, 2023 at 20:41

4 Answers 4

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The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tempest offers a footnote that more or less explains the line:

covered with pinches as thoroughly as the honeycomb has cells; the image perhaps derives from the notion that bees mould their wax by pinching it into shape.

And the version published by Cambridge clarifies:

the marks of the pinches will be as numerous as the cells in a honeycomb.


The Tempest: A Critical Reader appears to have examined this line quite thoroughly, but I can't see exactly what their point is at the end of it:

During the first onstage conversation between Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest, the magus threatens his slave: ‘For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps, / […] thou shalt be pinched / As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging / Than bees that made ’em’ (1.2.326–31). The ‘honeycomb’ had been an image of sweetness as far back as Proverbs and Psalms and a term of endearment for English writers since Chaucer, but Prospero’s usage emphasizes not sweetness but thickness.

What does it mean to be ‘pinched / As thick as honeycomb’? The problem of how to squeeze the greatest number of spheres, like cannonballs, into a limited space, such as the hold of a ship, had led a couple of Shakespeare’s most mathematically minded contemporaries, Thomas Harriot and Johannes Kepler, to speculate that bees’ honeycomb structures offer the tightest possible configuration; it also led Harriot, though not Kepler, to develop an atomic theory of matter in which every visible being consisted of countless invisible particles. Harriot never published his work on hexagonal close-packing and Kepler only discussed the matter in a light-hearted, albeit Latin, essay on ‘The Six-Cornered Snowflake’ printed in Frankfurt am Main in 1611, the same year Shakespeare’s The Tempest debuted on the English stage. But Prospero recognizes and utilizes this principle of tessellation or discrete geometry nonetheless. His ‘honeycomb’ is a model of mathematical efficiency and physical compactness – its hexagonal lattice allows for the highest density of sphere-packing within a three-dimensional space – and, as such, it threatens Caliban with the prospect of maximal pain: Prospero contrives to torture his slave on a ‘cellular’ level. Although Shakespeare did not live long enough to read Robert Hooke’s Micrografia, published in 1665, in which Hooke announced his discovery of biological cells, the smallest living units of an organism, the playwright knew that the smallest unit of the ‘honeycomb’ is the closely compacted six-sided cell. This not-so-sweet usage of the ‘honeycomb’, coupled with Caliban’s claim that ‘The spirit torments me!’ (2.2.63), gives new and menacing meaning to the diminutive Ariel’s song: ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’ (5.1.188).

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  • Re: "I can't see exactly what their point is at the end of it". If you are referring to the 'menacing' meaning of ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, this at first sounds like Ariel is referring to a flower, where a bee sips nectar. But if we include the idea of a honeycomb as a metaphor for torture, then we realize the possibility of a connection: bee larvae are reared in the individual cells of a honeycomb (it is what the cells are for, from the perspective of the bee) and they 'suck' the honey and food brought them by the nurses. So 'where the bee sucks' could also mean a honeycomb.
    – Kirt
    Jun 28, 2023 at 22:04
  • Just throwing out that for packing circles, the honeycomb pattern is, in fact, the most efficient arrangement for sufficiently large numbers (exactly equal to the density of a square grid and greater density than any other arrangement) Jun 28, 2023 at 23:09
  • @RyanJensen: I'm not familiar with the idea that square and hex grid packings are equal to each other, and generally see that (for large enough areas that edge effects are neglected) hex packing beats out square packing. Did you have another scenario in mind?
    – RLH
    Jun 29, 2023 at 5:23
  • @RLH You're totally right. I read that they were equal in a reputable source, but on further investigation find that in all the general cases I checked (in the limit at large sizes), hex packing is more efficient. I must have missed some qualification or special case in the original source. Jun 29, 2023 at 16:07
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An answer including clarifying examples:

The word thick is being used totally normally as in normal contemporary usage of today.

(Eg, the poppies were thick on the ground, the tourists were thick on the plaza, the invading fans were as thick on the football field as trees in a forest, etc.)

The pinch-marks all over you will be as thick on your face, as, the holes in a honeycomb.

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"Pinched", as used here, means "punctured". These words are etymologically and semantically related. Thick means roughly "close-packed". The phrase means "you will be pricked as full of holes as a honeycomb". A honeycomb is all holes, you know, using as little material as possible to separate them:

picture of honeycomb

Bees and urchins (hedgehogs) both puncture, rather than bite.

According to Dictionary.com, Pinch is known to be used since about

1250–1300; Middle English pinchen <Anglo-French *pinchier (equivalent to Old French pincier, Spanish pinchar) <Vulgar Latin *pīnctiāre, variant of *pūnctiāre to prick (cf. pique 1) dictionary.com

Etymonline states that this origin is "uncertain":

(Old French pincier, Modern French pincer), a word of uncertain origin, possibly from Vulgar Latin *punctiare "to pierce," which might be a blend of Latin punctum "point" + *piccare "to pierce. etymonline.com

However, the American Heritage Dictionaro of Indo-European roots has under Peuk-:

peuk-. Also peug-. To prick. Zero-grade form 'pug-. 1. Suffixed form 'pug-no- in Latin pugil, pugilist, and pugnus, fist, with denominative pugnare, to fight with the fist: poniard, pugilism, pugilstick, pugnacious; impugn, oppugn, repugn. 2. Nasalized zero-grade form *pu-n-g- in Latin pungere, to prick: bung, poignant, POINT, POINTILLISM, PONTIL, (POUNCE 1), (POUNCE 3), PUNCHEON 1, PUNCTUATE, PUNCTURE, PUNGENT; COMPUNCTION, expunge, SPONTOON, trapunto. 3. Greek pugmi, fist: (pygmaean), pygmy. [Pok. peuk- 828.]

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The meaning the word 'honeycomb' must have for the image to make any sense is 'pollen sac': Caliban's legs will swell so much with the bee stings that they will look like the legs of bees when their pollen sacs are full. Otherwise, I do not see what is the thickness of a honeycomb… ? THIS looks like a comb, does it not?! enter image description here

Still, I do not really understand 'comb' in 'honeycomb'… ! Online etymological dictionary:

comb (n.) Old English camb (later Anglian comb) "thin strip of toothed, stiff material" (for dressing the hair), also "fleshy crest growing on the head of the domestic fowl" (so called for its serrations), hence "crest of a hat, helmet, etc.;" also "honeycomb" (for which see honeycomb (n.)) , from Proto-Germanic *kambaz (source also of Old Saxon and Old High German camb, German Kamm, Middle Dutch cam, Dutch kam, Old Norse kambr), literally "toothed object," from PIE *gombhos, from root *gembh- "tooth, nail."

From c. 1300 as a tool for carding wool (probably earlier; Comber as a surname is from c. 1200). Comb-paper (1866) is marbled paper in which the design is produced mostly by use of a comb.

comb (v.)

c. 1400 (implied in past participle kombid), "to dress (the hair) with a comb," a verb derived from comb (n.) and replacing the former verb, Old English cemban, which however survives in unkempt. Meaning "to card (wool)" is from 1570s. Colloquial sense "to search, examine closely" is by 1904, American English. Related: Combed; combing.

also from c. 1400 Trends of comb adapted from books.google.com/ngrams/. Ngrams are probably unreliable. Advertisement Entries linking to comb *gembh- Proto-Indo-European root meaning "tooth, nail."

It forms all or part of: cam (n.1) "projecting part of a rotating machinery;" comb; gem; oakum; unkempt.

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit jambha-s "tooth;" Greek gomphos "peg, bolt, nail; a molar tooth;" Albanian dhemb "tooth;" Old English camb "comb."

honeycomb (n.) Old English hunigcamb; see honey (n.) + comb (n.). This use of the Germanic "comb" word seems to be peculiar to English, and the likeness is not obvious. Perhaps the image is from the comb used in wool-combing, but that extended sense of comb is not attested before Middle English. In other Germanic languages the word for it is "honey-string," "honey-cake," "bee-wafer," etc. Latin has favus, Greek melikerion.

Transferred use, in reference to various structures resembling honeycomb, is from 1520s. As a verb, from 1620s (implied in honeycombed).

unkempt beach-comber cam cockscomb comber numb See all related words (8) >

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    This is an interesting theory, but I can't find any evidence that honeycomb was used to mean anything other than a hexagonal structure in a bee's nest used to store honey, or a similar structure with a surface pitted with cavities. I checked the OED "honeycomb" and Merriam-Webster. But a closer search of Shakespeare books might find something.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 28, 2023 at 9:32
  • I doubt they had the ability to look this closely at a bee's knees in Shakespeare's day. And even if they did, such information would be known pretty much only among the very scientifically-minded, and not to the general populace who would be his target audience. Jun 28, 2023 at 15:55

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