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  • "If I do prove her haggard":Shakespeare's Application of Hawking Tropes to Marriage
  • Sean Benson

With the publication of Every Man in His Humor in 1598, Ben Jonson took aim at what was for him a risible displacement of classical philology by the newfangled lexicons of sport. Mr. Stephen, Jonson's "country gull," insists that a gentleman must be able to speak the "hawking language":1 "an' a man have not skill in the hawking- and hunting-languages nowadays, I'll not give a rush for him. They are more studied than the Greek or the Latin. He is for no gallants' company without 'em. . . . 'Slid, a gentleman mun show himself like a gentleman."2 As fashionable as such language was at the turn of the century, Constance Hieatt has demonstrated that falconry terms have traditionally constituted a word-stock for analogies between birds and humans.3 Typical is Spenser's description of Maleger, who in battle "lightly leapt areare: / Eft fierce returning, as a Faulcon faire / . . . . Remounts againe into the open aire."4 While Maurice Pope situates Shakespeare firmly within this analogic tradition, he also points to Shakespeare's uniqueness: none of Shakespeare's contemporaries refers to hawks as frequently or as unerringly as he does, suggesting to Pope, [End Page 186] and more recently to Edward Berry, that Shakespeare's "fascination" with hunting and hawking "is experiential rather than merely bookish." 5 Among other things, Shakespeare's facility with hawking language allows him to exploit the crucial, if not widely known, gender distinction between "trainable falcons (usually females) and . . . falconers (usually males)."6

I in turn wish to argue that Shakespeare leaves the relative straightforwardness of hawking tropes such as Spenser's behind and in the process makes hawking language wholly his own. First, he employs the gendered discourse of hawking language in order to make the interspecific leap from the falconer's training of his female hawk to a husband's training of his wife. Beginning with The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare uses hawking metaphors to suggest that a husband tame his haggard-like wife as a falconer would his bird. What allows such a leap is the language the falconry manuals use to describe the training of a hawk and in particular their recommendation that falconers cultivate a loving relationship with their birds, one whose intimacy implicitly draws upon the language of marital love. Second, I will address Shakespeare's decade-long engagement with wife taming by means of hawking language and his increasing tendency, between 1592 and 1604, to experiment with shifting the normative gender roles of falconer and hawk. Even as early as Romeo and Juliet, there is some gender slippage: Juliet is both tamer and, at certain moments, would-be tamed woman. Only in Othello, a play that has received scant attention for its hawking metaphors, does Shakespeare's exploration of hawking language reach its culmination. Othello and Desdemona vie with one another for the right to tame the other, only to have Shakespeare point out, as he had hinted in the much earlier The Taming of the Shrew, that the interspecific leap from training hawks to training one's wife is finally incompatible with human dignity.

The Interspecific Transfer

Shakespeare was to my knowledge the first writer to apply the prescriptions for hawk taming to marriage, to "the taming of a shrew."7 [End Page 187] What prompted him to create such an analogy? As Lorna Hutson and Kathleen M. Davies have demonstrated, there was already a time-honored precedent in comparing wife taming to animal training; the analogy, however, was not to a hawk but to a horse. Xenophon's Oeconomicus (ca. 380 B.C.E.) is the locus classicus, and the analogy between horse breaking and wife training was quite popular in books of domestic conduct.8 Shakespeare opted instead for the unfamiliar hawking trope, apparently with good reason: trainable horses are of both sexes, while trainable hawks are usually female. Thus, what a man must do to tame his wife—or so the argument goes—is comparable to how a falconer must train his female bird.

Unfortunately, critics have been quick to acknowledge notable exceptions to this...


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