Shakespeare and the animal world
Abstr. due: 10.05.2018
Dates: 10.01.19 — 12.01.19
Organizing comittee e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Organizers: Société Française Shakespeare
In the title of a book published in 1973, Terence Hawkes spoke of “Shakespeare’s talking animals”. Language and communication are not, by far the only features which, for the playwright, served to differentiate men from animals. As the son of a Stratford glover, who, in his young days, must have attended the slaughter and suffering of beasts while being made an apprentice in the treatment of their skins, Shakespeare developed a personal sensibility and a particular attention to animals.
Animals occupy a prominent place in the canon, both by their presence on stage (one may here think of Crab, Lance’s dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or the bear in The Winter’s Tale) and in the reminiscence of the medieval world of heraldry and of the bestiaries, of hunting and sacrificial rites. In the historiae animalium of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Conrad Gesner or Edward Topsell, but also in the contemporary emblem books, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights found many examples for his animal imagery as well as for various proverbs and ironical fables. Ovid’s Metamorphoses were another important source for the ass Bottom, the wolf Shylock, Orsino comparing himself to Acteon, Macbeth’s currish murderers, Lear’s ‘pelican daughters’ as well as Caliban, the fish-man of The Tempest. Desdemona and Othello, according to Iago, “are making the beast with two backs” and their “unnatural” love threatens Venice with a whole generation of monsters. But through its masks and many disguises, theatre encourages such metamorphoses, for laughs, but also in order to frighten the spectators or to give them food for thought, as in the case of De Flores’s dog face (in Middleton’s The Changeling) or the animal-coded names of the characters in Ben Jonson’s Volpone.
Is man “the paragon of animals” as Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a fit of bitter irony? Beyond feelings of real compassion for the suffering, sentient beast which serve to illustrate melancholy or taedium vitae, animals are presented as possible models for man. In Henry V, the archbishop of Canterbury claims that honey-bees “teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom”, while, for Cleopatra, the beauty and bounty of Antony is encapsulated in the image of the dolphin showing “his back above / The element”.
The word “beast”, which has 75 occurrences in the canon, differs from the word “animal” (only 8 occurrences) which etymologically refers to the breath of life (anima) responsible for motion. This raises the issue of taming and domestication, and thus that of the opposition between socialised and savage creatures. In The Taming of the Shrew, the Lord, who returns from a hunting party, takes loving care of his dogs while feeling nauseated by the sight of the drunken beggar Christopher Sly: “O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies!” Shakespeare proves attentive to the singularity and diversity of individuals more than to the species or category to which they are supposed to belong, so that his animal kingdom leads to a dizzying multiplication of appellations as well as to great linguistic virtuosity. This world, for him, illustrates the idea of hierarchy and symbolises law and order as much as such subversive ends as Hamlet’s referring to the worm, “the only emperor for diet”, which, through the fish which it serves to catch, allows the beggar to eat of the flesh of the king.
The very same animals that are presented onstage as scenic objects or instruments at the service of living performances are also at the origin of the production of tools and objects of daily life. The drum, for instance, over which skins of goats, lambs, cows, fishes or reptiles had been stretched since early antiquity, retained in its emblems the characteristics of the animal used for its manufacturing. Contrary to this warlike instrument, the lute materialises the celestial power of harmony which elevates the soul and takes it closer to God. But with its strings made with animal guts and its tortoise-shaped sound-box, the instrument also connoted suspicious animal qualities, poles apart from the supernatural virtues attached to it.
This conference invites a vast range and variety of proposals on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The following list, which by no means claims to be exhaustive, may serve to suggest possible topics and fields of investigation:
The role of animal heraldry;
The tradition of the fable and its subversion;
The hunt, its rites, vocabulary and imagery;
Domestication and savagery; domestic animals and wild beasts;
The function of metamorphosis; animals in the world of imagination, of the dream or of the unconscious; hybrids and fantastic beasts; esoteric lore and its chimeras;
Animal images of madness, possession and witchcraft;
The animal kingdom as related to climate and the environment;
The animalisation of man (and woman) and the humanisation of the animal;
Puns, terminology, insults, lexical and linguistic combinations in the field of the animal kingdom;
Meat consumption, slaughter and butchery; cruelty against vs. love of and pity for animals;
Animals in sports, games and festivities; animal imagery in popular riots, carnivals and the world upside down;
Animals as providing models or counter-models for social and political organisation; the animal kingdom as a mirror of law and order vs. the animal kingdom as image of chaos;
Classifications, inventories and hierarchies: from the king of animals to pest, from nobility to the ignoble, from the admirable to the frightening or the revolting;
Animality, bestiality, sexuality;
Objects related to the animal world: pelts, furs, objects made out of horn, fetishes, weapons, musical instruments;
Animals and music;
Animals on stage and on screen.