Andreas Hofele, Stage, Stake, and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare's Theatre.
In Stage, Stake, and Scaffold Andreas Hofele takes as his starting point the physical and conceptual closeness, noted by several previous critics, of the public theatre, scaffold (a stage for execution and punishment) and animal-baiting in early modern England. Insisting on the 'intermediality' (p. 13) of these sites of spectacle, Hofele contends that they 'participated in a powerful semantic exchange [which] crucially informed Shakespeare's explorations into the nature and workings of humanness' (p. 2). Hofele traces a rich vocabulary of the animal in Shakespeare's drama, unpicking the intertwining languages of punishment and entertainment and the mobile terms which forged links between, for example, animal-baiting and legal trials or the execution of Protestant martyrs and the sufferings of a whipped bear. The book's particular bias is, however, evident in Hofele's contention that 'in joining martyrs with a bear ... Foxe's story traces out a tableau in which the stage is set for Shakespeare' (p. 46).
Stage, Stake, and Scaffold is informed by recent scholarship which investigates both how animals have been represented and how the presence of animals challenges or extends the concept of the human. Noting 'the massive animal presence in early modern deliberations on the human' (p. 20) and mustering an impressive array of testimonies, from pigs on trial to Royal entertainments in which the lions refused to fight, Hofele does not argue that humans used animals as an 'other' against which to define themselves but suggests instead the complex processes by which animals appeared 'both alien and all too familiar' (p. 22). In Hofele's account of early modern England animals both made and unmade 'man' through their insistent similarity and marked difference. Shakespeare's animal metaphors are, for Hofele, not a dislocation but a 'carrying across' (p. 29), a transfer of energies across a conspicuously narrow divide.
Three short chapters take us through Macbeth, where the language of bestiality is revealed to be precisely what makes the murderous marital couple most human; the 'lethal histrionics' (p. 39) of Richard Gloucester, brought into conversation with James VI and I's Basilikon Doron to emphasise the continuities between stage and scaffold; and Coriolanus, whose baited hero is aligned with the nobility but also the vulnerability of the beast and finally revealed to be anything but a political animal. Taken together, these chapters amply illustrate Hofele's thesis that the animal-human border is tenuous in Shakespeare's plays and that instead a ferocious animal charisma renders at least some of Shakespeare's protagonists not, as Macbeth would have it, bestial--'I dare do all that may become a man, / Who dares do more is none'--but, in his wife's terms, richly and painfully human--'to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man'. (1)
Chapter Four draws together Foxe's martyrology, Montaigne's writings on cruelty and cannibals and Shakespeare's revenge tragedies, TitusAndronicus and Hamlet, suggesting that the cannibal and the animal together 'mark the always questionable limit of the human' (pp. 115-16). Hofele argues that Montaigne is unusual in the way he deploys 'figures of otherness' to unsettle rather than establish boundaries and 'to contest the anthropocentric and ethnocentric claims to superiority which animal and cannibal conventionally serve to reinforce' (p. 121). The evidence that Hofele musters is persuasive but there are occasional moments of sleight-of-hand, as, for example, when Lavinia's life is described as 'cheap as beast's', (2) a phrase which makes the reader wonder why Lear's words are necessary to convey (or create) the dynamic which Hofele identifies in the earlier play. Sporadic repetitions suggest the extent to which key phrases are, at times, required to bear the weight of the argument, a problem compounded by Hofele's repeated deployment of particular anecdotes as symptomatic of the wider culture.
Chapter Five returns Lear's words to their context, addressing the tragedy which, Hofele contends, offers at once 'Shakespeare's most searching investigation into the nature of the human' and 'his most varied and polysemous zoology' (p. 40) alongside 'a veritable bestiary of curses' (p. 188). In a compelling reading of the blinding of Gloucester 'tied to th' stake', Hofele argues that 'Shakespeare's stage colludes with and profits from the raw savagery of baiting' (p. 208) in part by invoking, whilst refusing to show, the visceral realities of animal sports. This chapter raises the possibility that some Renaissance thinkers felt the stirrings of sympathy with animals and that the suffering of 'dumb creatures' is a site of identification and self-knowledge for Lear. It is perhaps a pity that Hofele does not turn here to the animal writings of Margaret Cavendish, for instance, whose 'The Hunting of the Hare' vividly blends anthropomorphism and empathy. This is symptomatic of a larger neglect of questions of gender and it is unfortunate that the focus on public spectacle elides, for example, the routine violence of the kitchen, ably described by Wendy Wall amongst others and staged in both Hamlet and, memorably, Titus Andronicus--moments that Hofele links to the cannibal but not the cook. (3) Bringing in domestic matters might also have allowed not just the language but the presence of animals more space; it would be rewarding to see some consideration of the lived realities of human-animal cohabitation alongside their conceptual intermingling.
Hofele's final chapter is breath-taking in scope, opening with a re-reading of the colonial impulses of The Tempest in which both Caliban and Prospero are seen to be continually defined by the re-emergence of the creaturely. From there, we leap from Rene Descartes to Friedrich Nietzsche, pausing at a Times newspaper article from 1852 and a 1903 film, before arriving at the 'structural cruelty to animals built into the Western consumer food supply system' (pp. 277-8). Whilst Hofele's point--that cruelty to animals has not ended, but has been relocated from the realm of public entertainment to the hidden, agro-industrial processes which furnish our tables--is compelling, the route that brings us here is less persuasive: Descartes, 'harbinger of a new epistemic regime' (p. 255), is demonised as having single-handedly reduced the animal from co-habitant to machine (a view as sweeping as it is untenable) and the nineteenth-century 'disappearance' of blood-sports is too readily asserted, ignoring its ongoing incarnations and the class politics which informed the movement of baiting and coursing away from the public eye. Stage, Stake, and Scaffold is, however, an often subtle and hugely enjoyable book, which offers fresh, persuasive readings of the Shakespeare canon and challenges us to recognise the complex collusions of blood-sport, punishment and play.
University of York
(1) William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Nicholas Brooke (Oxford, 1990), 1.7. 46-7, 50-1.
(2) William Shakespeare King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London, 1997), 2.2. 456.
(3) Wendy Wall, Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, 2002), Chapter Six.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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