William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), known as the Bard of Avon, is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. It is not surprising that a writer with such a keen knowledge of human behavior and the beauty of language would also appreciate the poetic qualities of the feline. In fact, Shakespeare mentions the cat at least forty-four times in his plays, often using the qualities of the cat to illuminate the actions or character of the people in the play. The term “catcall”, referring to the act of booing poor acting, is an expression that dates back to the theater of Shakespeare’s time, when the audience criticized bad performances by making noises that sounded like a fence full of cats.
Harrison Weir, the father of the modern cat fancy, was also interested in Shakespeare. In Weir’s book, “Our Cats”, published in 1889, he wrote about the Bard’s love of cats:
“like nearly all else of which Shakespeare wrote, he displayed both wonderful and accurate knowledge, not only of the form, nature, habits, and food of the cat, but also the inner life, the disposition, what it was, of what capable, and what it resembled.”
Below is a just a small taste of Shakespearean quotes that reference felines in a way that reveals their character and ideas…
The English term, caterwauling, referring to the making of harsh noises or cries similar to cats howling, originated in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:
What a caterwauling do you keep here!
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo looking with much disfavor on cats and also dogs states:
And every cat and dog,
And every little mouse, and every unworthy thing.
Hamlet refers to the inevitability of things when he says:
The cat will mew, the dog will have his day.
Lady Macbeth uses the cautious habits of the cat to illustrate how she will not be that way:
Letting I dare not wait upon I would,
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.
For many people, and especially in Shakespeare’s time, there is a superstitious fear and foreboding upon hearing the mournful voice of a cat especially at night, and to build suspense towards something bad about to happen the poet wrote:
Thrice the brindled cat heath mewed.
The Taming of the Shrew
“He will throw a figure in her face and so disfigure her with it that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat “
The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare makes a distinction between the wild and the domestic cat; Shylock speaks of the night hunting feline:
Slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wild cat.
Shylock also uses the cat to speak of those that have a natural horror of certain animals:
As there is no firm reason to be rendered
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he, a harmless necessary cat.
Antonio uses a cats love of milk to refer to how willingly some people unthinkingly follow the path od others:
For all the rest,
They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.
King Henry the Fourth
Falstaff speaks of thieving ways by stating:
I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream.
Coriolanus , Act IV., Scene 2, shows how Shakespeare admires the perceptiveness of felines:
“I would he had”? ‘Twas you incens’d the rabble;
Cats, that can judge as fitly of his worth
As I can of those mysteries which heaven
Will not have earth to know.
King Henry the Fourth
Shakespeare refers to the loneliness of an old or castrated male cat when Falstaff reveals:
I am as melancholy as a gib cat.
Again, Shakespeare notes the difference between a wild and domestic feline:
A couching lion and a ramping cat.
Counching means crouching and ramping means rampant. Shakespeare’s terms were from the heraldry of his time, describing the stereotyped ways in which animals were portrayed on shields.
All’s Well that Ends Well
I could endure anything before but a cat,
And now he’s cat to me.
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Lysander reveals his feelings of anger when he speaks:
Hang off, thou cat, thou burr, thou vile thing.
And Gremio tells of the untamableness of the wild cat when he cries:
But wilt thou woo this wild cat?
Both cats and dogs again represent rejection:
In killing creatures vile, as cats and dogs.