William Shakespeare’s Sticky Metaphors

In her book Love and Limerence (1979), Dorothy Tennov catalogs the fate-like feeling, somewhere between infatuation and obsession, when you’re trapped by something bigger than yourself. If love is a verb that you choose to do over and over in committed relationships, limerence is a noun, a thing that you endure. I endured a series of years-long, unrequited crushes and was, frankly, exhausted by the time I came across a penciled-up paperback copy of Tennov’s book. I have an addictive personality in general—I endure M&Ms, TV shows, nail-biting—and I remember I spent the bus ride home reading the back cover again and again, feeling uncannily recognized.

Tennov claims that limerence is a set of nonsense syllables: “It was pronounceable and seemed to […] have a ‘fitting’ sound.”1 But some time after I first encountered the term, I realized that, as much as I’d recognized in limerence, the word recognized me right back. My high school English teacher had mentioned lime during our unit on Hamlet, the work on which I’d written most of my AP Lit essays:

“O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engag’d!”1

Here, Claudius is describing his brother-killing soul as a bird trapped by birdlime, a sticky substance that people in Shakespeare’s day would smear on branches to catch their supper. Though she may not have done it consciously, Tennov was gesturing at the same pattern: alighting on something only to find that you can’t flit away. Reading back, it made the stickiness vivid—the more you think about someone or something, even about how much you’re thinking about them or whether you should be thinking about them at all, the stickier the thought gets. A lover, an aspiration, a phobia, a sin.

Unknown, photographer, [Bird of Prey], 1852, Salted paper print, 18.4 x 23.2 cm (7 1/4 x 9 1/8 in.), 84.XO.699.3.12.Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Most people, unless they’re bird-watchers, are like me—if they’ve heard of lime, they’ll have heard of it through Shakespeare, not because he necessarily had any fascination with it (though he kind of did), but because he’s one of the most well-read authors from an era when birdlime was still a common element of life. I was way past Tennov’s book, pages-deep in a Google image search of birds hanging upside-down, before I felt the familiar chest-flush of a new obsession.

PROTEUS As much as I can do I will effect.
But you, Sir Thurio, are not sharp enough;
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rimes
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.2.66–70

I told people that I was conducting a research project on metaphors. It was easier and more polite to say that than to say I was staring back into something that had seen me.

ELEANOR: Suffolk, he that can do all in all
With her that hateth thee, and hates us all,
And York, and impious Beaufort, that false priest,
Have all lim’d bushes to betray thy wings;
And, fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee
King Henry VI Pt II (The Second Part of King Henry The
Sixth), 2.4.52–56

Was it a lie to call this a research project? Research is like any other infatuation—you circle back to revise your thinking, to wonder if these thoughts are normal; you need more and more occasions to test your hypothesis, check your reaction. Years ago, my stepdad gave me a copy of Yale Shakespeare: The Complete Works for my birthday, and once I’d started searching for lime I couldn’t stop. I’d let my eyes unfocus and skim one play, two. It never felt much different from walking into a party and scanning the crowd for the person I’d come there to see.

LADY MACDUFF: Poor bird! thou’dst never fear the net
nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.
Macbeth 4.2.39–41

Birds never lim’d no secret bushes fear:
So guiltless she securely gives good cheer
And reverend welcome to her princely guest,
Whose inward ill no outward harm express’d:
Rape of Lucrece, 88–91

To check your hypothesis you have to look closer. You can’t help but see everything as a rejection or secret message to that instigating question, to you. And so you keep looking for secret messages, and you find them everywhere, although not always where you’d expected. I couldn’t find one mention of lime in Romeo and Juliet. Lime is, after all, a trap.

Florence Kingsford Cockerell, illuminator (English, 1871 – 1949), A Hunter with Two Birds in a Net, English, 1908, Tempera, watercolors, gold leaf, and silver and gold paints on parchment bound between pasteboard covered with blue morocco, Leaf: 21.7 x 13.5 cm (8 9/16 x 5 5/16 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 12, fol. 7.Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

EARL OF SUFFOLK: Madam, myself have lim’d a bush for her,
And plac’d a quire of such enticing birds
That she will light to listen to the lays,
And never mount to trouble you again.
King Henry VI Pt II, 1.3.85–8

HENRY VI: The bird that hath been limed in a bush,
With trembling wings misdoubteth every bush;
And I, the hapless male to one sweet bird,
Have now the fatal object in my eye
Where my poor young was lim’d, was caught, and kill’d.
King Henry VI Pt III, 5.6.13-17

Not to say that Shakespeare’s lime wasn’t romantic at all. None of it matched up exactly with Tennov’s use, but it was just enough to keep me going. A glance out of the corner of your crush’s eye, that gut conviction that there really is something there.

URSULA: She’s limed, I warrant you: we have
caught her, madam.
Much Ado About Nothing, 3.1.107–8

MALVOLIO: I have lim’d her, but it is Jove’s doing and Jove make
me thankful. And when she went away now, ‘Let this fellow
be look’d to:’
Twelfth Night, 3.4.71–3

Some hard facts: Birdlime is usually made from plant matter, often poisonous plant matter like mistletoe berries or holly bark. It is related functionally but not chemically to lime, which is used as an adhesive in construction. Limerence is a bonding agent.

QUINCE: This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.135–6

THESEUS: Would you desire lime and hair to speak better?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.169

FLUTE: [as Thisbe] O wall! full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me:
My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.191–4

FALSTAFF: Thou mightst as well say, I love to walk by the Counter-
gate, which is as hateful to
me as the reek of a lime-kiln.
Merry Wives of Windsor, 3.3.63–4

Construction lime is made from limestone, slaked and mixed with other materials. Limerence builds a foundation.

KING JOHN: but for our approach those sleeping stones,
That as a waist doth girdle you about,
By the compulsion of their ordinance
By this time from their fixed beds of lime
Had been dishabited, and wide havoc made
For bloody power to rush upon your peace.
Life & Death of King John, 2.1.224–29

my father’s house,
Who gave his blood to lime the stones together
Henry VI pt III, 5.1.84–5

Construction lime is based on highly reactive, highly caustic calcium. In Shakespeare’s time, taverns might put lime in stale beer—also called “sack”—to make it look bubblier. Bonding is a reaction.

FALSTAFF: You rogue, here’s lime in this sack too. There is nothing
but roguery to be found in villainous man.
Yet a coward is worse than a cup of sack with lime
in it, a villainous coward!
King Henry IV, part I: 2.4.111–14

HOST: Let me see thee froth and lime: I am at a word; follow.
Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.3.12–133

I started to worry that I was finding instances that confused the meanings. I traced the etymology back to the Old English lim, for birdlime and sticky substances in general.The stickiness came from the Proto-Germanic construction material leimaz. Separately, Latin gave us limus for slime or mud and linere, a verb meaning “to smear.” If you go back, all of it stems from the proto-Indo-European root (s)lei, denoting stickiness and sliminess. There’s a part in every crush where your image of them isn’t enough. You need external confirmation that they are real, that they are in some way the person you think them. You listen for any mention. You look into the things they like. You see them walk out of a grocery store once and then it is Their Grocery Store, as much a part of their roots as the Dutch lijm.

TRINCULO: Monster, come put some lime upon your fingers, and
away with the rest.
Tempest, 4.1.264–5

I got far enough into it that my friends started sending me instances they’d found—a bawd named Mistress Birdlime in the Dekker & Webster play Westward Ho!, a line from a jilted lover in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, even one from Othello that I’d missed:

IAGO: I am about it, but indeed my invention comes from my pate as
birdlime does from frieze.
Othello, 2.1.141–2

As I continued to pore over Shakespeare’s collected works, I worried more and more that I was missing something. What if my eyes didn’t fall on just the right spot? What if a lime was hidden by a line break or the shadow of my thumb? Limerence, as a concept, encompasses the highs and the lows of obsession. Under its logic, despairing over someone who hasn’t looked at you once is just as much being in love as basking in the attention of a laugh at your joke or a we’ve met before, right? Despair was an extension of the rest, a new phase of research. In that despairing, I started to see lime everywhere—in limn, in limb, in time—there was no limit. The word was a familiar profile at the other end of every crosswalk. Recognition would lance through my chest—false—and then I’d have to go on for the next fifteen minutes prickling with vigilance and, a little later, disappointment.

Bute Master, illuminator (Franco-Flemish, active about 1260 – 1290), Initial I: A Bird Escaping from a Man’s Basket, French, text and illumination about 1285, Tempera colors, gold, and iron gall ink on parchment, Leaf: 17 × 11.9 cm (6 11/16 × 4 11/16 in.), Ms. 46, fol. 37. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

But then I’d flip an onionskin page and my eye would go straight to it, the real thing, and I’d be caught all over again. Limerence works in cycles like this. Suspense, despair, exultation, more despair, more suspense. Tennov describes it as a balance of hope and uncertainty—hope that the limerent object will reciprocate, uncertainty whether that hope is grounded on any reality. And according to Tennov, limerence can end in three ways: starvation, transference, or consummation. Starvation: hope and uncertainty run out. Transference: you become less limerent—again, not less happy, just less obsessed—and latch onto another limerent object that seems to offer more hope. Consummation: the limerent object reciprocates.

My eyes kept tugging towards limn, but transference felt like cheating. Starvation was miserable and, as I said, I have an addictive personality. But how could you ever consummate your relationship with a word? I logged onto OpenSourceShakespeare.org and wrecked my love with all the power the digital age had to offer. How many crushes had I suffocated going ten tabs deep on Facebook? How many elbows and chins and dangling etymological roots, breaking just edge of the browser window, had caught my breath?

THERSITES: Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!
Troilus and Cressida, 3.14

AARON: What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-lim’d walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Titus Andronicus, 4.2.100–1

I think part of my addictive personality comes from feeling like I don’t know anything, not even what I like, unless I know everything. I came to limerence—the word, the project—hoping for an obsession I could fully understand. Shakespeare is dead. His work has a fixed end and beginning. And yet, is sources are contested. Metadata, for all its power, doesn’t yet have the rhythmic or resonant logic of poetry. How can I ever be sure that the database, the collected works, the scholar transcribing a handwritten manuscript, didn’t crop out one last lime? How can I ever look at my thousand-plus-page tome and not hope or fear that I’ll happen across one last instance? These are all excuses, I know. If answers were all I wanted, I could have just googled from the beginning. Really, it’s intoxicating sitting under the weight of that six-point-eight-pound book on my lap, knowing that any moment my fingertips could alight on just what I’m looking for.

Limerence—as a word, as a project, as a way of knowing myself—feels just as living and changing and unknowable as any person. I am still hanging upside down from it.

MARIANA: Beware of them, Diana; their promises, enticements,
oaths, tokens, and all these engines of lust, are not the things they
go under: many a maid hath been seduced by them; and the
misery is, example, that so terrible shows in the wreck of
maidenhood, cannot for all that dissuade succession,
but that they are limed with the
twigs that threaten them.
All’s Well That Ends Well, 3.5.16–22

Unknown, illuminator, A Caladrius Bird, Franco-Flemish, fourth quarter of 13th century (after 1277), Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment, Leaf: 23.3 x 16.4 cm (9 3/16 x 6 7/16 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 74.Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.


The Yale Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. Wilbur L. Cross and Tucker Brooke. Barnes and Noble, 2005.

Thanks to Dandi Meng for research help and the Vermont Studio Center for the time and space to work on this piece.

1. Tennov, 15-16.
2. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3, 70–72
3. According to editor George Van Santvoord, “Frothing a pot of beer made it appear fuller than it really was; mixing lime with the sack made it sparkle in the glass.” Yale Shakespeare, p. 280
4. This instance comes from the quarto version of Troilus and Cressida; The Yale Shakespeare uses a version of the passage from Folio 5.1.19, which cuts the list of diseases short. I didn’t know if I felt better that I hadn’t missed it in the book or shaken at proof that my book didn’t contain every possible instance.

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