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The Cat Of Shakespeare








Shakespeare mentions the cat forty-four times, and in this, like nearly
all else of which he wrote, displayed both wonderful and accurate
knowledge, not only of the form, nature, habits, and food of the animal,
but also the inner life, the disposition, what it was, of what capable,
and what it resembled. How truly he saw either from study, observation,
or intuitively knew, not only the outward contour of "men and things,"
but could see within the casket which held the life and being, noting
clearly thoughts, feelings, aspirations, intents, and purposes, not of
the one only, but that also of the brute creation.

How truthfully he alludes to the peculiar eyes of the cat, the fine mark
that the pupil dwindles to when the sun rides high in the heavens! Hear
Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew:

And so disfigure her with it, that she shall have no more
eyes to see withal than a cat.

As to the food of the cat, he well informs us that at this distant
period domestic cats were fed and cared for to a certain extent, for
besides much else, he points to the fact of its love of milk in The
Tempest, Antonio's reply to Sebastian in Act II., Scene 1:

For all the rest,
They'll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.

And in King Henry the Fourth, Act IV., Scene 2, of its pilfering ways,
Falstaff cries out:

I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream.

While Lady Macbeth points to the uncertain, timid, cautious habits of
the cat, amounting almost to cowardice:

Letting I dare not wait upon I would,
Like the poor cat i' the adage.

and in the same play the strange superstitious fear attached to the
voice and presence of the cat at certain times and seasons:

Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.

The line almost carries a kind of awe with it, a sort of feeling of
"what next will happen?" He noted, also, as he did most things, its
marvellous powers of observation, for in Coriolanus, Act IV., Scene 2,
occurs the following:

Cats, that can judge as fitly.

and of the forlorn loneliness of the age-stricken male cat in King
Henry the Fourth, Falstaff, murmuring, says:

I am as melancholy as a gib cat.

He marks, too, the difference of action in the lion and cat, in a state
of nature:

A crouching lion and a ramping cat.

Of the night-time food-seeking cat, in The Merchant of Venice, old
Shylock talks of the

...Slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wild cat.

In the same play Shylock discourses of those that have a natural horror
of certain animals, which holds good till this day:

Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some, that are mad if they behold a cat.

and further on:

As there is no firm reason to be rendered
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he, a harmless necessary cat.

Note the distinction he makes between the wild and the domestic cat; the
one, evidently, he knew the value and use of, and the other, its
peculiar stealthy ways and of nature dread. In All's Well that Ends
Well, he gives vent to his dislike; Bertram rages forth:

I could endure anything before but a cat,
And now he's cat to me.

The feud with the wild cat intensifies in Midsummer Night's Dream;
'tis Lysander speaks:

Hang off, thou cat, thou burr, thou vile thing.

And Gremio tells of the untamableness of the wild cat, which he deems
apparently impossible:

But will you woo this wild cat?

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, looks with much disfavour, not only on
cats but also dogs; in fact, the dog was held in as high disdain as the
cat:

And every cat and dog,
And every little mouse, and every unworthy thing.

Here is Hamlet's opinion:

The cat will mew, the dog will have his day.

In Cymbeline there is:

In killing creatures vile, as cats and dogs.

The foregoing is enough to show the great poet's opinion of the cat.





Next: Superstition And Witchcraft

Previous: Cat Proverbs



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