"A Flea In His Ear"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: "A flea in his ear" is apparently a traditional English expression, meaning either to take umbrage at a speech by someone else or to be highly surprised. An occurrence of the phrase is in Pilgrimage of the lyf of the manhode (c. 1430): "And manye oothere grete wundres which been fleen in myne eres" (II, xxxix); here the expression means to astonish, but in De Lisle's Legendarie (1577) "Sending them away with fleas in their eares, vtterly disappointed of their purpose" (Bvj), it means to be annoyed. John Lyly was the first writer of much note to employ the phrase. In his novel Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit Lucilla, a rather light Neapolitan lady, has been the love of Philautus, a pleasure-loving young man of the city of Naples. Philautus introduces a new acquaintance, Euphues, a young scholar from Greece, to Lucilla, and immediately Euphues woos her to such effect that she disdains Philautus. By the time that Philautus has been excluded from her consideration, her father, Ferardo, who has been absent from town, returns and endeavors to effect a marriage between Philautus and his daughter, who treats him with great contempt and refuses to marry him. In the quotation below Ferardo prepares to examine Lucilla to discover why she has so completely changed her mind since the time of his departure from the city. While the interrogation is in progress Philautus stands as though with a flea in his ear, the expression at this point evidently meaning that he is dazed by Lucilla's complete denial of affection for him. After Lyly, Robert Armin (fl. 1608) used the expression in A Nest of Ninnies (1608): "The fellow knowing himselfe faulty, put up his wrongs, quickly departed, and went to work betimes that morning with a flea in his ear." The quotation from Lyly is as follows:

Ferardo, being a grave and wise gentleman, although he were thoroughly angry, yet he dissembled his fury, to the end he might by craft discover her fancy, and whispering Philautus in the ear (who stood as though he had a flea in his ear), desired him to keep silence until he had undermined her by subtlety, . . .