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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.1 (2001) 46-73

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The "ill kill'd" Deer:
Poaching and Social Order in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jeffrey Theis

Nicholas Rowe once asserted that the young Shakespeare was caught stealing a deer from Sir Thomas Lucy's park at Charlecote. The anecdote's truth-value is clearly false, yet the narrative's plausibility resonates from the local social customs in Shakespeare's Warwickshire region. As the social historian Roger Manning convincingly argues, hunting and its illegitimate kin poaching thoroughly pervaded all social strata of early modern English culture. Close proximity to the Forest of Arden and numerous aristocratic deer parks and rabbit warrens would have steeped Shakespeare's early life in the practices of hunting and poaching whether he engaged in them or only heard stories about them. 1

While some Shakespeare criticism attends directly or indirectly to the importance of hunting in the comedies, remarkably, there has been no sustained analysis of poaching's importance in these plays. 2 In part, the reason for the oversight might be lexicographical. The word "poaching" never occurs in any of Shakespeare's works, and the first instance in which poaching means "to take game or fish illegally" is in 1611--a decade after Shakespeare composed his comedies. 3 Yet while the word was not coined for another few years, Roger Manning proves that illegal deer killing was a socially and politically explosive issue well before 1611. Thus, the "ill kill'd deer" Justice Shallow refers to in Act One of The Merry Wives of Windsor situates the play within a socially resonant discourse where illegal deer killing brings to light cultural assumptions imbedded within the legal hunt. As a result, poaching operates as a trope through which the play's audience can analyze and critique class hierarchies, gender roles, and intergenerational conflicts that are often predicated directly or indirectly upon land-use practices.

An analysis of the pervasive references to poaching in The Merry Wives of Windsor intersects with the complex history of forest laws in England. As is common knowledge, English forests were not merely [End Page 46] dense woodlands: they could include open fields, small towns, and other topographies. What defined a forest was a monarch's desire to create a sanctuary for his own hunting pleasure. The first section of this essay maps out the central features of forest law, its enforcement, and how poaching accrued layers of cultural meaning. Within this section, analysis focuses on John Manwood's Treatise and Discourse of the Laws of the Forrests (1598). In many ways, Manwood's document is a synthesis of forest and game laws, but its significance lies less in what it says than in why and how he writes the document. Manwood responds to the pervasive abuse and neglect of royal forests by linguistically imposing boundaries on royal land. This document highlights the ways in which the boundaries of forestland were vulnerable to penetration by poachers. As the second section of this essay demonstrates, the permeability of forest boundaries that Manwood laments provokes quite the opposite response from Shakespeare. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare revels in illegality as poaching literally and metaphorically pervades the rambunctious comedy. Deer poaching comments upon control of the land, but Shakespeare also uses poaching as a metaphor for the usurpation of a person's control over other forms of property, such as a husband's control over his wife or a parent's control over her or his children. Here poaching offers a model of transgression that reveals the shaky foundation upon which rests the arbitrariness of property. The spatial transgressions which poaching enacts suggest that outright control over space, land, and people is impossible; instead, the play presents a more fluid organization of space and social relations that are continually in flux and subject to communal revision.

Forest Law: Turning Hunters into Poachers

The history of hunting tells us that poaching is rarely about finding dinner; rather, poaching is enmeshed in social privilege...


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