The Famous Ape

Photograph of a chimpanzee in grass holding right arm aloft in a gesture that looks like acting
Chimp Does Hamlet” (

This is a place where I can share my research on a new book project, “The Famous Ape”. In it, I trace the long history of human-simian relationships from the renaissance to the modern era. My training is in Renaissance literature and some of you Shakespeare buffs out there may recognize that the title comes from Hamlet. In that play’s famous closet scene, Hamlet warns his mother not to be “like the famous ape,” who sought “to try conclusions.”

I love this line; it’s usually cut from most modern productions since it makes Hamlet sound, well, crazy. Despite his specificity (he uses the definite article) and his conviction that the lessons of this example are well known, no one seems to know a thing about the so-called “famous” ape. Gertrude leaves the scene convinced of Hamlet’s madness, and most critics do, too, glossing the line as one that signals Shakespeare’s willingness to abandon reason and inhabit the world of his characters.

I am taking a different approach; I’ve been tracing the forgotten history of various “famous apes” from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, all of whom were quite well known in their own time. These animals were used by humans to “try” a wide variety of conclusions about science, culture, and art, but they are now mostly forgotten and excluded from our histories of early modernity.

Each chapter focuses on a specific animal, tracing its history. Its my hope that read together, these tales point towards broader claims about the role of animals in shaping histories of art, culture, and science and the role of aping in shaping human categories of knowledge. But, at its heart, my argument is simple: these are extraordinary creatures, whose tales are worth telling. In short: Who are our famous apes and what are we learning from them before they, too, are forgotten?