In Shakespeare's King Henry 6 part 3, we are truly introduced to that devilishly delightful Richard for the first time by means of his first and longest soliloquy wherein he introduces to the audience what he wants, why he wants it, and how he plans to get it ("it" being the English Crown of course!).

He speaks the following line about half-way through the soliloquy and refers to himself as a "Chaos":

To dis-proportion me in every part:
Like to a Chaos, or an un-lick'd Bear-whelp,
That carries no impression like the Dam.

The capitalization is not a mistyping on my part, but is how the Folio has it printed. I thought keeping the capitalization would be important as in Paradise Lost, John Milton in the eleventh line of the epic poem wrote (or I suppose spoke, due to his blindness)

In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos.

I am assuming the word "chaos" is capitalized to signify that this is no ordinary "chaos" but thé great "void" itself at the beginning of the book of Genesis, wherein God creates all things from no thing; hence the great "Chaos".

I bring this point up because I feel like I am missing something in Richard's speech. When he refers to himself as a "Chaos" (due to his "bunch-back'd Toad" deformities) what is he referring to?

Online Etymology Dictionary puts the following definitions for "chaos":

late 14c., "gaping void; empty, immeasurable space," from Old French chaos (14c.) or directly from Latin chaos, from Greek khaos "abyss, that which gapes wide open, that which is vast and empty," from *khnwos, from PIE root *ghieh- "to yawn, gape, be wide open."

Meaning "utter confusion" (c. 1600) is an extended sense from theological use of chaos in the Vulgate version of "Genesis" (1530s in English) for "the void at the beginning of creation, the confused, formless, elementary state of the universe." The Greek for "disorder" was tarakhe, but the use of chaos here was rooted in Hesiod ("Theogony"), who describes khaos as the primeval emptiness of the Universe, and in Ovid ("Metamorphoses"), who opposes Khaos to Kosmos, "the ordered Universe." Sometimes it was personified as a god, begetter of Erebus and Nyx ("Night"). Meaning "orderless confusion" in human affairs is from c. 1600.

Any of these definitions Shakespeare might have known about (with the exception of maybe the c.1600 definitions since the play in question was written sometime in mid to later part of the 1590s). So which is he referring to? Is the capitalization used to signify a biblical allusion, or is it something else entirely.

P.S I do know spelling and capitalization were highly unmanaged during Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

2 Answers 2


Norman Sanders's edition of The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth (Penguin, 1981) glosses "chaos" (III.2.161) as "piece of shapeless matter", which is rather less cosmic than the Biblical meaning. Sanders adds a comment to "unlicked bear-whelp":

It was believed that bear cubs were born without form and licked into proper shape by their mother; hence the proverbial saying 'lick into shape'.

The edition by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (RSC Shakespeare, 2012) glosses "chaos" as "shapeless mass" and has a footnote for "unlicked bear-whelp" that points out the same belief as Norman Sanders.

The most thoroughly annotated edition, by John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (Arden Shakespeare, Thomson Learning, 2001) glosses "chaos" as "amorphous mass or lump" (with a reference to the Oxford English Dictionary). For "unlicked bear-whelp", Cox and Rasmussen add a quote from Arthur Golding's translation (published in 1567 and believed to have been used by Shakespeare) of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book 15):

The Bearwhelp also which
The Beare hath newly littred, is no whelp immediatly.
But like an evill favored lump of flesh alyve dooth lye.
The dam by licking shapeth out his members orderly
Of such a syse, as such a peece is able to conceyve.

Each of the editions cited above spells "chaos" in lowercase. The capitalised "Chaos" in the First Folio very likely had no special meaning; such capitalisations could even be introduced by typesetters.


One of Shakespeare’s rhetorical techniques is to follow a piece of difficult language with a gloss or explanation in simpler terms, so that you can get the overall meaning of a passage even if you don’t understand every word. I suggest re-reading the lines with this technique in mind:

To dis-proportion me in every part:
Like to a Chaos, or an un-lick’d Bear-whelp,
That carries no impression like the Dam.

A bear cub is born hairless and blind, resembling an embryo rather more than its mother. So it must be the case that “Chaos” is here used to mean “an object that is disproportionate, shapeless, or unformed”.

Commenting on Shakespeare’s use of “indigest” in King John:

Be of good comfort, prince; for you are born
To set a form upon that indigest,
Which he hath left so shapeless and so rude.†

† Note that here too Shakespeare glosses “indigest” as soon as he has used it.

Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke wrote:

Indigest. Used to express a mass of confusion or disorder, a chaos or chaotic state; Latin, indigestus, disordered, confused. It has been pointed out that Ovid has an almost similar passage:—

Quem dixere chaos rudis indigestæque moles.
                Metamorphoses I.

Which Chaos hight, a huge rude heape: […]
No sunne as yet with lightsome beames the shapelesse world did vew.
                Golding’s Translation.

From which it would seem as though both the original and the translated versions were known to Shakespeare.

Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, eds. (1870). Note to King John, act V, scene VII. In The Plays of Shakespeare, volume II, p. 51. London: Cassell, Peter, and Galpin.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses was one of Shakespeare’s favourite classical sources: he drew on it for Venus and Adonis, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lavinia’s denunciation of Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, and many other works. So it seems likely that he got “Chaos” in this sense of “amorphous or formless mass or lump” (OED) directly out of this passage from Ovid.

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    Thank you very sincerely for the insightful answer, I really do appreciate it, I chose to give Tsunkdoku the "accepted answer" mark, but I did want to at the least say if I could have given both of you the acceptance I would have. Your answer was just as excellent. Oct 21, 2020 at 0:42

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