The Shakespeare Menagerie

Outtake from the 1948 production of Hamlet starring Sir Laurence Olivier.

For better or worse, when I sit down to write, I am almost always joined by my by trusty muse and housecat, Dinah. And again, whether I should admit it or not, she’s something of the inspiration for this post. While the humans of Shakespeare’s plays are no doubt in the forefront, in her honor, I wanted to write a tribute to my favorite animal appearances in The Bard’s oeuvre. So without further ado, my top five animal performances in Shakespeare plays:

  1. Perhaps the most famous stage direction in any of Shakespeare’s plays: In The Winter’s Tale, Antigonus is tasked with abandoning the baby princess Perdita on a beach. He considers taking pity on the child, but before he can, he is chased from the stage. Exit, pursued by a bear. It is one of the many instances in the play that keep you guessing if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. Either way, a play where someone is inexplicably mauled by a bear is generally better than one without a bear.
  2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as full of animal imagery as any of Shakespeare’s play and includes men transformed into beasts and actors portraying lions. However, one animal that is not portrayed by a man is that of a dog. The dog is used as a prop in the play within a play so that Moonshine may have a dog to howl at him. While a small line “This dog, my dog,” I like to think a dog did grace Shakespeare’s stage. Albeit anachronistic, but in my mind this dog is also a labradoodle.
  3. Sometimes the most pivotal animals are in fact the absence of them. I’m, of course, referring to Richard III. As is so often the case in life, there’s never a horse when you need one.
  4. The true animal method actors don’t even require an appearance to have a strongly felt stage presence. In Romeo and Juliet, it is none other than the tuneless lark that is capable of separating 14-year-old lovers. The bird gets a lot of grief for lack of melody, but getting two teenagers out of bed is still a fairly impressive feat.
  5. And finally, in my attempt to feature a cat, although I admit this one is something of a stretch: In Macbeth, one of the witches takes the appearance of a gray cat or “Graymalkin.” Not a true animal appearance, I grant you; however, credit where credit is due: If you’re a specter trying to choose an animal form, better a cat than a toad.

For more animals appropriately linked with Shakespeare quotes, check out The Bard’s Cards shop for sloths, octopi, alpacas, and all sorts of creatures that might have graced Shakespeare’s pages if he had but encountered them.