The Gallbladder in Literature

The Common Vein Copyright 2008

We introduced the use of the gallbladder in health and culture in the modules on historical asppects and cultural aspects of the gallbladder.  In many cultures the inferences of the gallbladder to that particular culture was used in their literature.  we are not going to repat the use gall and gallbladder in the ancient cultures.  This section starts with Chaucer.

 It is probably worth repeating the origin and use of the word in this chapter to provide a context to its use in literature.

In ancient Greek medicine and philosophy, bile was considered one of the two bodily humors (black bile, or melancholy, and yellow bile, or choler)

In botanical circles it has come to mean an excrescence on a plant caused by fungi, insects, or bacteria: galls formed on oak trees have a high tannic acid content and are used commercially (L. galla “gall, lump on plant,” originally “oak apple,” of uncertain origin.)

 In veterinary circles it has come to mean a a sore on the skin, esp. of a horse’s back, caused by rubbing or chafing ( O.E. gealla “painful swelling)

In literary circles it has come to mean also reflecting a bitterness.irritation, harassment and annoyance, It has also been used to reflect spite, cynicism, or rancor, Sometimes it reflects impudence, effrontery, insolence, temerity, impertinence or rudeness (chutzpah).  Other contexts it describes an embittered spirit, or  rancor.

The absence of bile – Doves have no gallbladders and they are emblems of guillessness  Aristotle  History of animals

 In geographic context a water gall  is  cavity made in the earth by a torrent of water; an erosive action of the earth to the water washout.

In the Chinese culture it  is intimately related to the concept of Qi or flow

In biblical context gall and wormwood are used together as a reflection of extreme bitterness.  Wormwood a Eurasian perennial yields a bitter dark green oil.

In the old testament, the Hebrew word “la’anah” is used several times to describe the epitome of bitterness. It is often translated (as in the King James Bible) as “wormwood”.

“Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.” Jeremiah, 9:15

“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go [and] serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood;” Deutoronomy, 29:18

Chaucer 1343 -1400

Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the father of English literature and is best known unfinished narrative “The Canterbury Tales.  The Canterbury Tales and Other Poems can be found on the internet in the  Gutenberg text on line

In The Loathly Lady –  Wife of Bath’s Tale Chaucer writes “For truly there is none among us all, If any wight will claw us on the gall” by which he means scratch us on a sore area .

 Shakespeare 1564-1616

Shakespeare used the word gall extensively.  There is an outstanding reference on the web called   Rhyme Zone: Shakespeare  that allows one to identify specific phrases in Shakespeare’s works and creates a link to the text.  When the word “gall” was searched 206 results were found, about 60 of which seemed to have inference to the word gall in this contxt under discussion. (Rhyme Zone  searchgall“)

You have the honey still, but these the gall;   Toilus and Cressida: II, ii
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,   Hamlet: IV, vii
Some galled goose of winchester would hiss:   Toilus and Cressida: V, x
And they that are most galled with my folly,   As You Like It: II, vii
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.   Romeo and Juliet: I, i
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,   Othello: IV, iii
Whom from the flow of gall I name not but   King Henry VIII: I, i
Which a dismiss’d offence would after gall;   Measure for Measure: II, ii
Wherein have you been galled by the king?   King Henry IV, part II: IV, i
Well, I am loath to gall a new-healed wound: your   King Henry IV, part II: I, ii
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall‘d him;   King Henry VIII: III, ii
Touches us not: let the galled jade wince, our   Hamlet: III, ii
Though ink be made of gall.   Cymbeline: I, i
Thou wert better gall the devil, salisbury:   King John: IV, iii
Thou grievest my gall.   Love’s Labour’s Lost: V, ii
These sentences, to sugar, or to gall,   Othello: I, iii
Their eyes o’ergalled with recourse of tears;   Toilus and Cressida: V, iii
The hart ungalled play;   Hamlet: III, ii
The canker galls the infants of the spring,   Hamlet: I, iii
The bull, being gall‘d, gave aries such a knock   Titus Andronicus: IV, iii
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,   King Richard III: IV, iv
Stand by, or I shall gall you, faulconbridge.   King John: IV, iii
Say is a gallimaufry of gambols, because they are   The Winter’s Tale: IV, iv
Save how to gall and pinch this bolingbroke:   King Henry IV, part I: I, iii
Out, gall!   Toilus and Cressida: V, i
Or else it would have gall‘d his surly nature,   Coriolanus: II, iii
O deadly gall, and theme of all our scorns!   Toilus and Cressida: IV, v
Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.   Romeo and Juliet: I, v
Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou   Twelfth Night: III, ii
Let it not gall your patience, good iago,   Othello: II, i
Item, sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d.   King Henry IV, part I: II, iv
However this may gall him with some cheque,   Othello: I, i
How I am galled,–mightst bespice a cup,   The Winter’s Tale: I, ii
Have steep’d their galls in honey and do serve you   King Henry V: II, ii
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,   Hamlet: I, ii
galling the gleaned land with hot assays,   King Henry V: I, ii
galling at this gentleman twice or thrice. you   King Henry V: V, i
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?   Measure for Measure: III, ii
But when they would seem soldiers, they have galls,   Toilus and Cressida: I, iii
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall   Hamlet: II, ii
But cried ‘good seaman!’ to the sailors, galling   Pericles, Prince of Tyre: IV, i
As fearfully as doth a galled rock   King Henry V: III, i
And that, my state being gall‘d with my expense,   Merry Wives of Windsor: III, iv
And that the legions now in gallia are   Cymbeline: III, vii
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,   Macbeth: I, v
And he may well in fretting spend his gall,   King Henry VI, part I: I, ii
And added to the gall. o lear, lear, lear!   King Lear: I, iv
Age to show himself a young gallant! what an   Merry Wives of Windsor: II, i
Against your yet ungalled estimation   The Comedy of Errors: III, i
A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint,   Toilus and Cressida: I, iii
A’ has a little gall‘d me, I confess;   The Taming of the Shrew: V, ii
A pestilent gall to me!   King Lear: I, iv
‘twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them   Measure for Measure: I, iii
Spurr’d, gall‘d and tired by jouncing bolingbroke.   King Richard II: V, v
Livers with the bitterness of your galls: and we   King Henry IV, part II: I, ii
gall of goat, and slips of yew   Macbeth: IV, i
gallus, go you along.   Antony and Cleopatra: V, i
galls the one, and the pox pinches the other; and   King Henry IV, part II: I, ii
gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!   King Henry VI, part II: III, ii
gall! bitter.   Love’s Labour’s Lost: V, ii
Fraughted with gall.   Various poetry: XVIII

The implications of the meaning of the word gall is quite varied with many usually having a negative connotation such as bitter, irritation, or anger, and sometimes implying a positive trait such as in courage. There are some instances where Shakespeare uses his knowledge of the fact that ink is made from the gall that are embedded on leaves and bark, (“Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou ”  Twelfth Night: III, ii )while he seems to have been familiar wirth Aristotles knowledge that pigeons did not have gallbladders.(“But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall”   Hamlet: II, ii ) .  In a very interesting line from Lady Macbeth (“And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,”   Macbeth: I, v ) where she infers the perceived differences between women (milk = loving and sustaining) and men (perhaps a negative mixed with positive  – anger, irritation, and courage inferred) she asks to be unsexed and to be given male gallness.

Ref Rhyme Zone for Shakespeare 

Izaak Walton 1653 

The Compleat Angler, Chapter 21.

But first for your Line. First note, that you are to take care that your hair be round and clear, and free from galls, or scabs, or frets: for a well- chosen, even, clear, round hair, of a kind of glass-colour, will prove as strong as three uneven scabby hairs that are ill-chosen, and full of galls or unevenness. You shall seldom find a black hair but it is round, but many white are flat and uneven; therefore, if you get a lock of right, round, clear, glass-colour hair, make much of it. —

 In this context it is used to mean an  imperfection resembling a gall.

Matthew Prior 1664-1721


But let your friends in verse suppose
What ne’er shall be allowed in prose,
Anatomists can make it clear
The liver minds its own affair;
And parts and strains the vital juices,
Still layes some useful bile aside,
To tinge the chyles insipid tide;
Else we should want both bile and satire
And all be burst with pure good nature.

 Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797

George Washington 1732-1799


The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources: Volume 12, 1745-1799


“The disposition for these detachments is as follows — Morgans corps, to gain the enemy’s right flank; Maxwells brigade to hang on their left. Brigadier Genl. Scott is now marching with a very respectable detachment destined to gall the enemys left flank and rear.”

In this context it is used to mean to harass with the intent to cause injury.



From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792

It moves my gall to hear a preacher descanting on dress and needle-work; and still more, to hear him address the British fair, the fairest of the fair, as if they had only feelings.

In this context it is used to mean a feeling of exasperation


Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892

From Leaves of Grass 1855

“And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table….my firelock leaned in the corner.”

 Edga Rice Burroughs 1918

“Durn ye!” he cried. “I’ll lam ye! Get offen here. I knows ye. Yer one o’ that gang o’ bums that come here last night, an’ now you got the gall to come back beggin’ for food, eh? I’ll lam ye!” and he raised the gun to his shoulder.”


The richest references in literature were utilized by Shakespeare, who explored the word from all its aspects .. taking it to places sometimes where it had never been before … even to the desire of Lady Macbeth to unsex herself.