On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology

And here’s part II of my developing chapter on Shakespeare and Animals. For the first part, “The Last Honest Beast,” on Timon of Athens, see here. Or just wait for the Routledge Handbook to come out a couple years from now.

Part III will be coming early next week, I expect, and in it, I’ll get free from Shakespeare. Preview the argument here.


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Sick Lion, c. 1465, Ulm or Basel. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

To be just, William Painter’s Timon chapter is of two minds about beasts. Despite repeating the old idea of beastly solitude (“how like a beast (in deede) he was”), the chapter’s first sentence imagines beasts as typically social: “all the beastes of the worlde do applye themselves to other beasts of theyre kind, Timon of Athens only excepted.” And while Shakespeare is generally hostile to beasts, he likewise observes that “nature teaches beasts to know their friends” (Coriolanus II.i.6). Beasts are furious, raging, destructive, except when they cluster sociably into their own kinds. The fantasy of beastly self-sorting attests both to a belief in a naturally communal quality to all life—not a “red in tooth and claw” war of all against all, but a massive set of what we might call homogeneous animal republics — and to a taxonomic imagination that atomized the homogenized mass of beasts into particular kinds, each having their own individual characteristics. Being a beast might just be awful, but what it means to be a particular kind of beast depends on the beast. Because a sheep is not a wolf is not a fox, there is no one form of dehumanization.

But the metaphorical use of animals might be said not to have all that much to do with animals themselves. In response to Apemantus’ “beastly ambition” (IV.iii.368) for a world denuded of humans, Timon imagines Apemantus becoming various animals: “if thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee. If thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee. If thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee when peradventure thou wert accused by the ass. If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee, and still thou lived’st but as a breakfast to the wolf” (IV.iii.370-75), and so on. Timon of course is not the only one in Shakespeare’s work to make such a speech. In King Lear, Edgar, during his feigned madness, bemoans a woman “false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey” (III.iv.98-101). Comparisons like these do not actually imagine their humans targets transformed into animals; instead, the rich and varying lifeworld of an animal disappears into the one trait each is made to embody. The metaphorical lion is less a big hairy feline carnivore than just something “valiant” (Henry IV, Part 1, II.iv.286), “proud” (Macbeth IV.1.103), and possessed of a terrible roar (Henry VI, Part 2, III.1.19; King John II.1.306). Being compared to a fox implies nothing about furriness or pointed tails; instead, it is just that the fox, always “subtle” (Cymbeline III.iii.44), aptly illustrates treachery:

For treason is but trusted like the fox,
Who, never so tame, so cherished and locked up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors. (Henry IV Part 1, V.ii.11-13).

And likewise with the metaphorization of lambs and wolves and pigs. None of this should be surprising. Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy spells out the common wisdom neatly, with a long passage on the moral degradation of humans into various beasts: “the violent plunderer of others’ wealth burns with avarice: you would say he was like a wolf. The wild and reckless man exercises his tongue in disputes: you will compare him to a dog”; the fox is a “trickster,” the lion driven by ungovernable anger, the deer “timorous,” the donkey “stupid,” birds “fickle and inconstant,” and a sow “filthy” and “gripped by pleasure.” To put it simply, once again in the serve of naive redescription, none of the metaphors imagine their targets undergoing complete animal transformations. Each instead distills the animal into a single, predictable unitary trait expressing specific actions and moods: the fox is nothing but a beguiler; the lamb nothing but meek prey; the donkey nothing but a dullard; and the wolf nothing but a despoiler of other people’s property. Because the animal metaphor sloughs off nearly the whole of the animal life, affixing an adjective to an animal — a ravenous wolf, for example — is supernumerary, because in metaphor, to speak of the wolf is to speak of nothing but its appetite, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, with any of the other commonly metaphorized animals.

The animal is a distinct kind of natural metaphor, of course, different from a rock or a river, for example. Animals have faces, they move on their own, they want things, and they can die. But in metaphorical refinement of animal behavior to a singular trait — in what we might call a tradition of poetic ethology — makes animals have desires, motion, and vulnerabilities only in highly constrained, predictable ways, without any choice to be anything other than what they do. When metaphor applies animal singularity to humans, it briefly freezes human multiplicity into one neat quality. The animal metaphor does not achieve its effects from the yoking together of unlikelinesses; only the human is unlikely, because a human might be anything at any given moment, in any given circumstance; but the animal side never varies. If human emotional expression has a history — if we expect men to faint and cry in twelfth-century warrior tales, and to keep themselves stoic in the sixteenth and seventeenth, as with “Dispute it like a man” (Macbeth IV.iii.259) — the character of animals in metaphor functions as a transhistoric emotional resource, predictable stages on which the variations of human comportment might play. Metaphorical animals thus work in a state of suspended animation, without any surprises, for the animal rendered into metaphor is less the gradual spilling out of a life than a GIF, an off-the-rack flipbook of satisfyingly looping action.

Critical animal theorists are fond of quoting Walter Benjamin’s comments on the animals in Kafka (e.g., Driscoll and Hoffmann): that they are “repositories of the forgotten,” like Kafka’s tubercular cough, which he called “the animal,” and which Benjamin glossed as “the last outpost of the great herd” (132). There is a similar fondness for John Berger’s “if the first metaphor was animal, it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric.” Derrida finds philosophy wanting, for “thinking concerns the animal…derives from poetry,” and poetry “is what philosophy, essential, had to deprive itself of” to present itself as making sense. The “animetaphor,” as Akira Mizuta Lippit writes, “supplements the dream, language, and world systems, providing an external source of energy that changes the machine” (130). And to this list, we can add Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s observation in his “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” which I find myself quoting often, that medieval writers found in traditional natural history “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human.” For these writers, for the “becoming animal” of Deleuze and Guatarri too, the animal is something not quite captured by human limitations; it is a source of energy, surprise, of a lurking surplus in our pretensions of order; it is what gets free and disarranges. Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital demonstrates the failures of such fantasies: the animal as outsider or natural foundation requires an undialectical, ahistorical, even nostalgic faith in an incorrupted outside, a belief that sometimes supports a politics of liberation and resistance, but not inevitably. Even without needing to appeal to Shukin’s critique, we can simply mark the utter predictability of Shakespeare’s animal metaphors: if the “animetaphor” is a “fabulous machine,” Shakespeare’s animal metaphors are just the half of that, mechanical. There is no “cough” in them, nothing to unsettle their smooth operation. Certain and straightforward, they set nothing free, but instead, briefly bind the human to an already bound animal.

His metaphors work so reliably because he draws them from how animals function for humans. Foxes are sneaky, because they slyly steal our things; wolves are ravenous, because they eat our animals, and they frighten us; sheep are meek and helpless and edible, because we have bred them to be just that. His animal metaphors are therefore not quite so much animal metaphors as they are animals-for-us metaphors, already trapped in a human orbit even before the obviously anthropocentric work of his metaphor. Foxes and wolves and lions might do other things, out of our sensing, but we are unlikely to hear about such things from Shakespeare; and if his dogs and horses have a more unpredictable liveliness, this is because dogs and horses serve more functions for humans. More likely than foxes and wolves and even sheep to be familiar to urban poets, they cannot be so smelted into one pure quality. His metaphorical dogs might be mad (Anthony and Cleopatra IV.xv.93) and beaten (Coriolanus IV.v.56) but, like actual dogs, they also might also be our intimates (Henry IV Part 2 II.ii.105). And his horses tend to be just that, horses, not metaphors.

The habits of critical animal theory have encouraged us to try to set literary animals free from the strictures of anthropocentric symbolism by discovering the real animal vibrating in animal tropes. We would be expected to salvage Shakespeare by proposing, for example, that his animal metaphors nevertheless infect the human with animality, as no human can escape the touch of a metaphor unscathed. We could “blur the boundary” between human and animal by demonstrating how much of our emotional lives, for example, our rage and hunger and loyalty is really animal, at least to the poets; the belief that category mobility is equivalent to liberation would encourage us to such an interpretation.

Such interpretations are possible, even welcome, but not with Shakespeare. We have to recognize his limits. It may be that Shakespeare strikes so many as a modern because his animals are so familiar to us: they are constrained in ways we expect them to be constrained, as the fabulous qualities of animals of classical and medieval natural history gave way to the anthropocentric prejudices of certain strains of modern science. For metaphorized animals better suited for setting in motion the “specious boundaries of the human,” we must look to the poetic ethology of other early modern dramatists. Marston and Shirley and Jonson do things with animals, and thus with humans, that Shakespeare refused to imagine.

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