The Lovers and Chameleons of Shakespeare

Looking at references to the chameleon in Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ can reveal some surprising things. Chameleons were once thought to live on nothing but air, and therefore make perfect metaphorical comparisons for those in unrequited love.

Species: Some kind of chameleon (Chamaeleonid sp.)
Source: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, perhaps Shakespeare’s first play.
Date: c.1589-91.
Highlights: Considering how often Shakespeare uses the semantic field of feasting to describe love, comparing people to chameleons (who were thought to never eat) was an especially effective insult…

Click below to read more.

What is the first thing you think of when I say “chameleon”? Probably, like most people today, the first thing you think of is the ability to change colour to hide against any background. You might not even be thinking of the lizard. The ability to hide in plain sight has been so envied by humans that the ability has been recreated in everything from computer games to military technology.

But this is not how medieval people imagined the chameleon. The animal was just as famous then, but for a different reason. Here is part of what Pliny says about it in ‘Naturalis Historia’:

… It always holds the head upright and the mouth open, and is the only animal which receives nourishment neither by meat nor drink, nor anything else, but from the air alone… (VIII.51)

The chameleon was as well known as any of the other bestiary beasts in medieval Britain but it was known for its (fictitious) ability to live on air, without needing any other food. But this ability was still famous in the post-medieval period, The rest of this article will explore one example.

Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentelemen of Verona’ may be his earliest play and is dated by the Oxford anthology to c.1589-91. The play tells the story of two young friends, Proteus and Valentine. The two fall in love with the same woman, and a great deal of the play is devoted to their verbal sparring with other suitors. The story has its own drama though, and Proteus’ betrays both his fiancée and his best friend over the course.

There are two references to chameleons in the text, and both of them describe chameleons as air-eaters. The first is relatively simple.Valentine and his valet, Speed have been talking about love. Valentine has just written a love letter as a favour for a woman he has feelings for (Silvia), only to be told to keep it. Speed is impressed by the woman’s quick-wit. The woman did not even have to write her own letter! Our extract comes at the end of the scene. Pragmatic Speed, ever-ready with the sarcastic wit, seems to tire of talking and wants to eat.

SPEED: … Why muse you, sir? ‘Tis dinner-time.
VALENTINE: I have dined.
SPEED: Ay, but hearken, sir. Though the chameleon, Love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourished by my victuals, and would fain have meat. O, be not like your mistress–be moved, be moved! (Act 2, Scene 1)

Valentine says he has already eaten, but depending on the performance, this could mean simply that he feels satisfied just having received a love letter. Speed, disappointed, compares the personification of love to a chameleon. People in love are so distracted they do not notice meal-times, just like a chameleon which does not need to eat. The term ‘feed’ implies that Love is an animal. It does not ‘eat’ like a human, only sustains itself.

There is a hidden importance to the chameleon metaphor. Just like chameleons can go a long time without food, lovers can go a long time without love. Silvia has not written a letter of her own, and Valentine has nothing to feast on but the words he himself has written, no matter what her actions imply about her feelings. Valentine’s love could not be compared to any other kind of animal because there is nothing for it to eat.


The cruelly named Furcifer pardalis, photographed by N’golo and licensed for use under CC-BY-SA.

The second chameleon reference comes a short time later. Valentine takes part in a quick repartee with another one of Silvia’s suitors called Thurio. Silvia is urging them on.

SILVIA: What angry, Sir Thurio? Do you change colour?
VALENTINE: Give him leave, madam, he is a kind of chameleon.
THURIO: That hath more mind to feed on your blood than live in your air.
VALENTINE: You have said, sir.
THURIO: Ay, sir, and done too, ‘for this time.
VALETINE: I know it well, sir, you always end ere you begin. (Act 2 Scene 4)

There are two layers of meaning to this scene. Silvia starts by mocking Thurio. Valentine seems to have won the exchange which has taken place before this point in the story, and Thurio is turning red with anger. She does not pretend to like Thurio, and only accepts him as a suitor because of her father.

This gives fodder to Valentine, who compares Thurio to a chameleon. This is a reference to the idea that chameleons change colour, and are inconsistent, but there’s more to it than that. Valentine is also mocking Thurio in exactly the same way he himself was mocked by his servant in Act 2 Scene 1. Thurio is a chameleon because he is obliged to live on air. He has not been given any “meat” to live on because Silvia has never given any real sign that she likes him as more than a suitor. This line is mocking but also perhaps sensitive. It might even be critical of Silvia for leading her two suitors on. ‘Give him leave, madam’, ‘he is a kind of chameleon’, Valentine says. This implies that the only reason Thurio is a chameleon is because Silvia has not fed him. This implicit criticism of Silvia might help explain the perplexing final scenes of the book where Valentine excuses someone attempting to rape her. The false logic that those who tease people in some way provoke their own rape is still common today.

Thurio takes this line as the insult which, at surface level, it is clearly supposed to be. On the surface level his answer is a threat. Thurio would rather hurt Valentine than live in the same air as him. But again, there are deeper levels of meaning. Thurio is saying that he not just a chameleon ‘living on air’, he is determined to eat. Following on from Valentine’s line, the only possible food for Thurio is Silvia. He turns the insult back on Valentine. Thurio will feed on his ‘blood’ (on a figurative level this is could be a reference to Silvia), and Valentine will be the only one left with air. At this point in the story Valentine and Silvia are already secretly engaged, but Thurio does not know this.

Valentine affects to have been bored by Thurio’s retort. ‘You have said, sir’ implies that Valentine believes Thurio is just spouting hot air. This works on both levels. He both does not believe Thurio will carry out his physical threat, and he does not believe Thurio will win-over Silvia.

Thurio’s reply is very fast ‘Ay sir, and done too, ‘for this time’. He is implying that his words are not empty. He has done this before and he will do so again. There is nothing in the play to suggest he has ever either fed-on (assaulted) Valentine, so perhaps he is trying to scare his opponent by suggesting he has previously fed-on Silvia.

Again, Valentine appears unconcerned. Thurio might be dropping dark hints but Valentine does not pay them any attention. ‘I know it well’ he says, ‘you always end ere you begin’. If Thurio ever set out to either attack Valentine or win Silvia he never got anywhere. Valentine has won another exchange.

In the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, chameleons furnish quick-witted characters with material for their speeches. Those frustrated in their love are teased that they are chameleons, living on air whilst others are feasting. This myth lives-on alongside the idea of the chameleon as a (inconsistent?) colour-changing beast. For both these reasons it is not an animal which characters like to be compared with.

Knowledge of animals must have been much harder to obtain in the centuries before nature documentaries and photographs. Nevertheless, the double reference to the chameleon in a popular comedy play proves that the animal was well known, even in the late sixteenth century. The animal’s continued popularity today shows it continues to have a place in our cultural consciousness 500 years later.


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