Shakespeare and Sensibility

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Writing about Montaigne’s influence on The Tempest for my recent blogs has reminded me that my mentor and friend Professor T. J. B. Spencer once said that Shakespeare and Montaigne were the first two authors in Western Literature to demonstrate a capacity to write sympathetically of the sufferings of animals.

What he had in mind from Montaigne I don’t know, though one of the most frequently quoted sentences from the Essais is ‘When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.’ (This is from the ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond.’)

For Shakespeare Spencer certainly had in mind Isabella’s words in Measure for Measure: ‘the poor beetle that we tread upon /In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies.’ (3.1 77-79).

Spencer’s claim was big and would be difficult to substantiate, but other examples of a similarly sympathetic response to animal as well as to human sensibility can be found among Shakespeare’s writings. I think for instance of the description in Venus and Adonis of:

The snail, whose tender horns being hit
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smothered up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again. (lines 1033-6)

The imagination that could think of the snail’s horns as ‘tender’ and therefore susceptible to suffering, and that could picture them retreating into the comforting darkness of its shell, was one that could reach beyond the limits of the human self into the mind of an animal. And in the same poem is a long and sympathetic description of the feelings of ‘Poor Wat’, the ‘timorous flying hare’, a ‘dew-bedabbled-wretch’ which – or who – is thought of in human terms as a ‘poor wretch’ who ‘stands on his hinder legs with list’ning ear , / To hearken if his foes pursue him still.’ (lines 674-708).

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare speaks not in his own voice but through the fictional figure of Isabella, but it is his imagination that makes her speak thus. It is the same imagination that, in King Lear, can empathise through the imagined Edgar with the feelings of ‘one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!’ (The Tragedy of King Lear, 4.5.15). We are often told that it is fruitless to look in Shakespeare’s works for evidence of their writer’s biography. It is true that we cannot, for example, claim from King Lear that Shakespeare was ever a gatherer of samphire on the cliffs of Dover. But we can say that, however he came to know of the trade of samphire gathering – whether through his reading or through talking to those who knew about it – he could imagine the feelings of those who did it. Though passages such as these tell us nothing about the mundane facts of their author’s outer biography, they give us access to what we most value about him, his uniquely sensitive imagination and his capacity to project it in words.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Victoria Bladen

    Stanley, your perceptive blog on Shakespeare’s sensibility also reminded me of that great line in All’s Well That Ends Well where Paroles, after being completely humiliated, says “Simply the thing I am/ Shall make me live…There’s place and means for every man alive” (4.3.310-11, 316). In this Shakespeare communicates this extraordinary empathy for humans in every situation, which as you say, is reflected in his imagining of the suffering of animals.
    regards, Victoria Bladen

  • “Though passages such as these tell us nothing about the mundane facts of their author’s outer biography, they give us access to what we most value about him, his uniquely sensitive imagination and his capacity to project it in words.”

    Indeed, and isn’t that what really matters (even though it’s interesting to speculate about his life)? These quotes reminded me of Titus’s speech asking about a dead fly, “But how, if that fly had a father and mother? How would he hang his slender gilded wings, And buzz lamenting doings in the air!” It makes me curious as to what others were writing about animals at the time.

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