On the Absence of Beasts in Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona, finished yesterday: Nicely wrought but formulaic and forgettable: The only Shakespeare play with a dog in it. The rest of Shakespeare’s works marked, if that’s the word, by the absence of animals with certain revealing exceptions.

Famously, the Winter’s Tale features a bear (“Exit pursued by a bear”).

But I rack my brains for any other roles for animals in Shakespeare. The first Elizabethan theaters featured bear baiting for the low fellows, and bear baiting was precisely what its name implies: testing, “baiting” and wounding the bear until it was enraged, and would attack the bravos. Sickening, like bullfighting: just as care-for-the-stranger marks the Chinese and the Jews as civilized people, no society in which animals aren’t protected from abuse can claim to be civilized.

My guess is that Shakespeare didn’t go for bear-baiting. The Duke of York is “baited” in Henry VI part 3 and it’s clear Shakespeare found “baiting” and slowly killing a man or beast reprehensible.

But I can’t think of any Shakespeare passages condemning the use of animals in war: in Richard III, Richard tells a flunky (Catesby?) to “saddle white Surrey for the field tomorrow”, and in a much more famous line, Richard is on foot crying “my kingdom for a horse”. This implies that poor White Surrey was killed in the affray unless White Surrey threw Richard and escaped to a cozy barn in Leicester with plenty of hay.

Tenderness towards horses does appear in Richard II, the deposed Richard laments the theft of his horse Roan Barbary by Henry IV.

So I fall into a watch, and then a reverie, about discovering a Shakespeare play: The Lamentable History of Spot, the Dog of Avon.

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2 Responses to “On the Absence of Beasts in Shakespeare”

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