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  • Falstaff and the Culture of the Hunt
  • J. Drew Stephen (bio)

MRS. PAGE: There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter
(Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest)
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns,
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And [makes] milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld[ers]
Receiv'd and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth

(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.4.26-36)

William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597) is not a play about hunting, yet it is touched on many levels by the culture of the hunt. The Herne legend described above is just one of many references to the activity, but it is significant since it provides a central image in the play. Herne is distinguished by the horns growing from his forehead. He is both human and stag, hunter and hunted. Visually, he corresponds to the popular image of the cuckolded husband who was similarly horned. For the Elizabethan audiences who were immersed in contemporary hunting culture, these references were clearly meaningful. For audiences today, many of these references have lost their significance. My aim is to clarify some contexts that have been lost over the years by examining the hunting culture that existed at the time the play was written. Like Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, I will begin by examining the play, but I will also extend the process to include their operatic Falstaff of 1893. The opera contains a number of alterations that reflect the new meanings and associations accrued by the hunting motif.

At the end of the Middle Ages the hunt was a highly codified activity requiring the co-operation of all participants. There were many different methods, but the noblest and most elaborate was the chasse à courre or parforce hunt. This hunt was carried out by force as opposed to with weapons, and a single animal, usually a stag, was chased using only a pack of hounds. Preparations began with one or more huntsmen questing for a suitable stag, that is, one at least five years old with ten points on its antlers. If one was found, the hunter would follow it to its lair and mark the [End Page 729] area. This would assist him in relocating the path when he returned with the company, and establish his priority over other hunters by showing that he had already quested in that area. Afterward, the individual huntsmen would report to a special gathering at which the chief hunter would choose the animal he felt had the greatest merit. One such gathering, in this case presided over by Queen Elizabeth, is shown in George Gascoigne's The noble arte of venerie or hunting of 1575 (figure 1).

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Figure 1.

'Of the place where, and howe an assembly should be made,in the presence of a Prince, or some honorable person' (Gascoigne, 90)

Once an appropriate animal had been chosen, the hounds were led to its lair to seek a fresh scent and the hunt would commence. From this point onward, the hunt was a matter of strategy.The hunters, using horses and hounds, attempted to remain in pursuit of the stag. The stag attempted to elude the hounds, either by outrunning them or by making use of one of several ruses, such as doubling back on its tracks and then jumping into the woods; taking cover in thick undergrowth where access was difficult; taking to an open field where it had an advantage in speed; or taking to water in an attempt to cool itself and hide its scent. If the stag reached the point of exhaustion, a process that could take up to four hours, it typically did one of two things. It either turned to face the hounds, defending itself [End Page 730] with its antlers, or it dropped to the ground in defeat. In...


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