- Stage, Stake and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre
London of the 1600s was a melting pot of violence, brutality, and spectacle. The impaled heads of traitors atop of the entranceways of London Bridge greeted all those who crossed the Thames. Southwark, the home of theatres such as the Globe and the Rose, was a wild and raucous haven for drunks, prostitutes, thieves, and gamblers, and also the location of several blood sport arenas, where spectators paid to see cockfighting or snarling, bloodthirsty dogs attack chained bears.
This noisy, crowded, bawdy, and bustling environment certainly influenced William Shakespeare and in Stage, Stake and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre, Andreas Höfele examines these related spectacles in the context of his work. Höfele traces the ways in which the bear-baiting arena, the scaffold of public execution, and the theatre were in a sense intimately related: all three occupied marginal spaces in the city; all three shared an architectural similarity (a ‘performance space’ surrounded by spectators); and all three were points of intersection of animality, cruelty, and punishment. Stage, Stake and Scaffold aims to analyse how this intersection of theatre, bear-garden, and scaffold generated a powerful exchange of images and a transfer of animal features into Shakespeare’s characters. [End Page 216]
That Shakespeare thematized animals thoroughly in his plays is well established. Yet critical commentary on animals in Shakespeare has focused largely on imagery, and not on how they reflect the way in which early modern Europeans conceived of the human being in relation to other species. Höfele presents a compelling case that the ‘conflicted nature of human nature’ found in Shakespeare’s work derives from complex doubleness: ‘the fundamental sense of difference and a fundamental sense of similarity between humans and animals’ (p. xi). The Gloucesters in both King Lear and Macbeth compare themselves to staked bears (p. 208 and p. 63 respectively), the killing of Coriolanus is tantamount to the play’s ‘final baiting scene’ (p. 114), and Caliban is ‘Both human and animal but fully at home in neither category’ (p. 246).
To cover all the examples of animal imagery found in Shakespeare’s entire body of writing would be impossible in just one book. One of the strengths of Stage, Stake and Scaffold is its structure – the book is set out into seven sections, an introduction and six chapters. Each chapter is devoted to a single play (except Chapter 4, which tackles two) and also examines a variety of non-Shakespeare textual sources, such as works by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Michel de Montaigne, John Foxe, Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. These authors are essential for any examination of the relationship of the human and animal in early modern times.
However, I found Stage, Stake and Scaffold most engaging when Höfele directly addresses Shakespeare’s plays. These include six tragedies and a romance: Macbeth, Richard III, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest. Within each chapter other relevant works by Shakespeare are discussed in some detail, though I must admit I was surprised and a little disappointed by the near absence of any critical analysis of The Winter’s Tale – a play I thought would be essential in any discussion of the interrelation between bear-gardens, early modern stage spaces, and Shakespeare.
Each chapter of Stage, Stake and Scaffold offers engaging, close readings of each of these plays, tying the play to a larger theme. For example, Chapter 4 offers a tantalizing discussion of the cannibal–animal in relation to the Shakespearean revenge tragedies Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. Stage, Stake and Scaffold is incredibly well researched, the variety and scope of critical materials cited is impressive, and the footnotes are a fascinating accompaniment to Höfele’s analysis. The text is clearly written and Stage, Stake and Scaffold features a number of well-chosen examples of artwork (such as the Frans Snyder painting The Bear-Hunt...