Shakespeare Invented the Boring Animal

Part III of III of my chapter on Shakespeare and Animals: now present.

Part 1, “The Last Honest Beast: Timon of Athens,” is here.

Part 2, “On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology,” is here.

And Part 3: below.

scottish barnacle tree
Tree Geese of the British North, from John Gerard’s Herball

Shakespeare can feel contemporary to us because we are unlikely to find his animals surprising; his contemporaries, however, might have found them somewhat pedestrian. Shakespeare’s panthers are hunted (Titus Adronicus 1.i.502), spotty (The Tempest IV.1.284), and dangerous to deer (Troilus and Cressida III.iii.196), but they lure no prey to their dens with their sweet breath. His hyenas laugh (As You Like It IV.1.163), but never draw humans to their doom by counterfeiting their voices. While his bears do attack if they feel their young threatened (Merchant of Venice II.ii.30), Shakespeare has nothing to say about the bear mothers literally licking their newborn cubs into shape. His beavers are just parts of armor, not animals at all, and certainly not animals that castrate themselves to escape their hunters. His eagles are the steeds of Jupiter (Cymbeline V.iv.95), the insignia of Rome (Cymbeline V.v.566), far-sighted (Love’s Labor’s Lost, IV.iii.240 and Richard II III.iii.70), and noble, disdainful master predators (King John V.ii.128); one may be long-lived (Timon of Athens IV.iii.247), and another stare directly into the sun (Love’s Labor’s Lost IV.iii.246-8), but his never renew their youth by soaring far into the sky. It has been said, sometimes laughingly, that Shakespeare invented the human; but we might say instead, just as seriously, that he invented only the boring animal.

Drawn from classical writers like Pliny and Solinus, repeated and refined by great Latin medieval natural history compendia of Albert the Great (On Animals, and Questions Concerning Aristotle’s ‘On Animals’), Thomas of Cantimpré (On the Nature of Things), Vincent of Beauvais (The Mirror of Nature), and Bartholomew the Englishman (On the Properties of Things), or even from the Bible itself — Psalms 103:5 praises God renewing our youth, “like the eagle’s” — the old strains of animal lore would be repeated well into the seventeenth century, preserved, sometimes skeptically, in texts like Stephen Batman’s slightly updated version of John Trevisa’s late fourteenth-century English translation of the Bartholomew (1584), or in Edward Topsell’s widely reprinted Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607). Some old facts might be met with doubt: Topsell repudiates, for example, the shapelessness of cubs:

And whereas it hath been believed and received, that the whelps of Bears at their first littering are without all form and fashion, and nothing but a little congealed blood like a lump of flesh, which afterwards the old one frameth with her tongue to her own likeness, as Pliny, Solinus, Aelianus, Orus, Oppianus, and Ovid have reported, yet is the truth most evidently otherwise, as by the eye-witness of Joachimus Rhetious [or this], and other, is disproved: only it is littered blind without eyes, naked without hair, and the hinder legs not perfect, the fore-feet folded up like a fist, and other members deformed by reason of the immoderate humor or moystness in them.

He is just as certain, however, about the sweet breath of panthers. Some natural historians argued that panthers hunt by hiding in trees and changing the color of their spots, so camouflaging themselves into murderous invisibility. Topsell counters with a perhaps uncharacteristic conservativism, “there is no cause to draw the Beasts unto him, but the attractive power of his sweet savour.” Batman on beavers approvingly repeats the old belief about castration (“they geld themselues when they be ware of the hunter“); for his part, Topsell thinks this an outrageous error (“But this is most false“), akin to the credulousness that infected the old true Christianity with superstition (“his poyson hath also crept into and corrupted the whole body of Religion”). Topsell nonetheless endorses the belief — found, for example, in Gerald of Wales’ twelfth-century History and Topography of Ireland–about how aged beavers, their teeth too worn to gnaw through trees, remain useful to their fellows:

upon his belly lade [the fellow beavers] all their timber, which they so ingeniously work and fasten into the compasse of his legs that it may not fall, and so the residue by the tail, draw him to the water side, where these buildings are to be framed: and this the rather seemeth to be true, because there have been some such taken, that had no hair on their backs, but were pilled; which being espied by the hunters, in pity of their slavery, or bondage, they have let them go away free.

That pity for these living sleds is a striking moment of cross-species sympathy. Just as striking is the dynamic of doubt and credulousness, in which written authority wavers before eyewitness testimony, even if just second-hand. Topsell relies on hunters for parts of his beaver knowledge. One of his chief sources, the mid sixteenth-century Historiae animalium of Conrad Gessner, proudly relays a story from the astronomer Georg Joachim Rheticus about Polish hunters who had taken a bear with a tiny bear-shaped fetus still in its uterus. Old knowledge might be on their way out, but they could be preserved at least so long as someone could be provided to believe in it.

That is, belief can be a more complicated matter than a simple determination of truth or falsity. Sometimes simply knowing about something can be a record of a kind of belief. Scholars have broken themselves for centuries on the question of whether Shakespeare read Batman (150-53), but even if he never did, Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, would have certainly known something of traditional animal lore, because others outside the natural history compendia still repeated the old knowledge. Michael Drayton’s preface to a reprinting of his tragic poems on Robert of Normandy, Queen Matilda, and Piers Gaveston (1596) complains that sections had been released “contrary to my will,” full of mistakes, “left unformed and undigested, like a Bear whelpe before it is licke by the Dam“; after William Bullein’s Bulkwarke of Defense against Sickness (1562) praises bear fat for soothing the pains of footmen, it pauses to disprove “the common fable among the people, that….Beare hath a disformed Whelp in the time of deliverance, without Members“: as a poet and physician, Drayton and Bullein each has his own standards of truth. But even by disproving common knowledge, Bullein attested to its continued currency, even if just as a strawman of presumptive superstition that allowed him to present himself, a physician, as an authority. We can safely assume that Shakespeare, as well-read as he was, and as social as he was by profession, had at least a passing familiarity with the common wisdom of his era. And familiarity is enough for a poet to make an effective allusion.

We should therefore avoid two great mistakes of dealing with early modern natural history. We should not assume that classical and medieval writers were more credulous than the early moderns. Although the thirteenth-century Dominican Albert the Great, for example, is well-known for arguing that barnacle geese hatch not from shellfish, but from eggs, William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est [1544; The Principle Birds mentioned by Pliny and Aristotle] repeats the belief: he doubts his main source, Gerald of Wales’ Topography, but then offers the testimony of an Irish theologian of his own era, who swore on the Gospels that he had seen and touched the barely formed chicks. The third volume of Conrad Gessner’s natural history, on birds, repeats a similar story from “not very truthworthy Normans” about geese hatched from rotting wood. And John Gerard’s Herball (1597) concludes “with one of the marvels of this land (we may say of the world)…certaine trees, whereon doe growe certaine shell fishes, of a white colour tending to russet; wherein are conteined little living creatures: which shels in time of maturitie doe open, and out of them grow those little living things; which falling into the water, doe become foules, whom we call Barnakles” (thanks to the Hoenigers and Anderson). Nor should we assume that the use of odd ethology for metaphor necessarily required that either the writer or their audience straightforwardly believed in the fact being metaphorized. The new science of the seventeenth century slowly relegated the old ethology to only antiquarian knowledge, but it did not erase the knowledge altogether. Responding to or recognizing a metaphor requires a kind of belief in it, albeit of a different form than scientific knowledge: we skeptical moderns still know what it means to talk about ostriches putting their heads in the sand. Likewise, for the sake of making a metaphor, John Marston need not have scientifically believed anything about the “Scotch barnacle, now a block, instantly a worm, and presently a great goose” (The Malcontent, 73). It was enough that he knew, and that he expected his audience, to know about it. And while Shakespeare did not draw on the old ethology for his animal metaphors, we should not assume because of this omission that he is somehow more modern or scientific than his contemporaries, or, for that matter, that he was a less fanciful poet; nor should we assume that he knew less than his fellows. It is just that, for whatever reason, many of his contemporaries drew on the resources of the old ethology, and Shakespeare did not.

Fully treating ethology and natural history in English drama from, say, the sixteenth through the mid seventeenth century — that is, up to the gravity of the scientific revolution began to generally deform and break apart the old beliefs — would be beyond the scope of my chapter. A sample suffices for identifying patterns. I draw from the TCP/EEBO project, and especially the VEP Core Drama corpus, comprising 554 plays, about 80 more than TCP/EEBO has, in which I searched for animal terms using DocFetcher, a simple desktop search engine providing easily and quickly readable results. Print indices compiled before widespread textual digitizations have also proved useful. I make no claims that the prevalence of terms or ideas in a corpus necessary indicates anything about their prevalence or influence in a larger culture. I follow the hesitations of Katherine Bode about “distant reading”: the frequency or paucity of any given term, phrase, or idea in a given corpus by no means reflects which texts were read or reread or neglected, how they were ignored or loved, or, for that matter, where they were read (87-89 especially).

Much of the old natural history lent itself readily to dramatic metaphor. Even seemingly inapposite material could be used, like barnacles and bear cubs and beavers and long-lived eagles. The Rebellion, a tragedy by the engraver Thomas Rawlins, performed in 1629-30, has its “Count Machvile” scheme like so:

Plot, plot, tumultious thoughts, incorporate;
Beget a lump how e’re deformed, that may at length
Like to a Cub licked by the careful Dam,
Become like to my wishes perfect vengeance. (I.i.91-95)

William Strode’s The Floating Island, a statescraft allegory performed in 1636, has its Iratus, an angry lord, speak of extracting himself from a plot with “Thus when the Beaver smells the Hunters aime, / He throwes away the price of his escape” (I.vii). Though the eagle’s keen sight was, as one would expect, a frequent source for metaphor, even its youth-restoring powers could be put to use: Ben Jonson’s Alchemist has Sir Epicure Mammon believe in an elixir that can “Restore his years, renew him, like an eagle, / To the fifth age” (II.i.55-56), while William Davenant’s The Just Italian (1629) has its crafty suitor Florello imagining that “The gentle Turtle shall direct us how / T’augment our loves; the Eagle to renew / Our youth.” The deadly deceits of panthers and hyenas unsurprisingly proved more popular, because of their obvious use for dramatic metaphors about speech, deception, and murder. John Lyly’s comedy Midas (1589) speaks of “the craftines of the fox, the cruelty of the tiger, the ravening of the woolfe, [and] the dissembling of Hyena” (IV.ii.31); John Marston resorts to hyena metaphors at least twice, in Eastward Ho (1605;”I am deaf still, I say. I will neither yield to the song of the siren nor the voice of the hyena“) and What You Will (1601;”He Is a Hyena, and with Ciuitt scent / Of perfumed words, draws to make a prey / For laughter of thy credit”), although in the later allusion, he confuses the hyena with the panther. Ben Johnson also slips, by mistaking the panther (“whose unnatural eyes / will strike thee dead,” The Poetaster, for the basilisk. Shakespeare’s pelicans, to be sure, still do what they had done since the classical writers; in Hamlet (IV.v.167), Richard II (III.iv.76), and King Lear (II.1.131), they pierce their breasts and feed their young with their own blood. But otherwise, readers looking for lost ethologies among the dramatists will have to search outside Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s animals are, for the most part, familiar. They are pedestrian, or, we might say, terrestrial. Constrained, they reflect our own prejudices about our emotional lives, and our own vulnerabilities. They are for us, there to be obediently eaten, to be pestiferous or dangerous or angry or noble, but only rarely will they challenge us to think of how the other ways we might live. They live as we do, but in a narrower way. For a richer world, one that better represents both the treasure of prescientific animal lore and the anticipates the new treasures of modern ethology and biology, we have to look elsewhere.

For the animals of the other early modern English dramatists do strange things: not strange, of course, to the traditional animal lore–they would have been familiar from storytelling, despite the tendency of the panther to be blurred with hyenas and basilisks — but strange to how we imagine life to operate. They live at different scales than us: occupying the sky, beyond our sight; possessed of senses and capacities that we could never imagine ourselves having; the bear mother is a female who provides form, challenging the Aristotelian model of conception in which only the male can shape matter into coherence; and trees might become birds. Modern ethology can sometimes still leave old prejudices unsloughed: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions complains of the continued prevalence of a certainly that animals are motivated only by a “quasi-autonomous plumbing system” (38) of thoughtless natural selection. And many cultural conservatives profess believe in a natural two-gender model, despite the rarity of sexual reproduction among living things, and despite the 36,000 genders of some fungiColin Dickey’s review of Marah J. Hardt’s Sex and the Sea speaks of an undersea world “sovereign and strange,” whose world is not parallel and instructive to our own, but rather one that informs us “how alien our own behavior is to the vast range of life that we share the Earth with.” Such wonderful and various ways to be alive give us a nature that teaches us that nothing is normative except life’s ceaseless creativity. If a bear can lick a baby into shape, what foolishness it is to think there is only one way to be born!