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Animal Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Imagery of Sex Nausea Karl P. Wentersdorf I In the plays which Shakespeare wrote after completing his series of romantic comedies culminating in Twelfth Night, he treated the theme of love satirically and tragically. The new series of sombre dramas, including Troilus and Cressida, Mea­ sure for Measure, Othello, and King Lear, begins with Hamlet. In all of these, the plot elements, laying bare the darker side of humanity, are highlighted by the use of animal and bird imagery suggestive of cruelty, greed, and especially lust. There is Lucio’s characterization of Angelo as being so chaste that “Sparrows must not build in his house-eaves because they are lecherous” (Measure for Measure Ill.ii. 175-76); Iago’s innuendo that the allegedly adulterous lovers are “as prime as goats” (Othello III. iii.403); and Lear’s denunciation of seemingly virtuous women who in reality are given to “luxury”—“The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t/ With a more riotous appetite” (Lear IV. vi.117-23).1 This kind of imagery in Hamlet may not be as obtrusive as it is in some of the other plays, but thematically it is just as significant. The use of animal and bird imagery to symbolize morality was a practice that flourished throughout the Renaissance and derived immediately from the Middle Ages, when symbols taken from pagan literature, the Bible, treatises by naturalists, and folklore became commonplace in both didactic and secular literature. Congregations assembled to hear Sunday sermons, readers of poetry and romances, audiences gathered to watch drama—people everywhere, at all social levels, were familiar KARL P. WENTERSDORF, Professor of English at Xavier University in Cin­ cinnati, has published extensively in the fields of Renaissance and medieval literature. 348 Karl P. Wentersdorf 349 with a whole language of “signs.” The symbols were to be found in medieval and Renaissance architectural decorations such as gargoyles, bas-reliefs, and misericords; they could be seen in pictorial art in the form of paintings, murals, tapestries, and illustrations in manuscripts or printed works. And the spate of Renaissance emblem books, culminating in Picinelli’s encyclo­ pedic collection, bears ample testimony to the great interest taken in symbolism. One manifestation of this interest is the profusion of wood and stone carvings in churches and cathedrals. Particularly interesting are the misericords with their depiction of biblical and fabular episodes or (more commonly) emblematic images: humans, birds, beasts, and monstrous creatures, representing activities, virtues, and vices.2 St. George slaying the dragon, a favored motif, prefigures the Christian soldier’s triumphant vic­ tory over sin. A dragon alone symbolizes Satan. A unicorn pursued by hunters and placing its head in the lap of a virgin can symbolize the Incarnation, but it is also a symbol of chas­ tity. The deadly sins are frequently represented in literal images: a man attacking another with a knife signifies wrath; a man in bed, sloth; a man pouring or drinking wine, gluttony; a couple embracing, lechery. The sins, especially lechery, are also repre­ sented in a variety of symbolic images. Lust may appear as a naked man or woman riding on an animal noted for its libid­ inous nature such as a goat, a hart, or a ram.3 The fish-siren or mermaid was perhaps the most commonly displayed symbol for the allurements of the flesh: some misericords depict mermaids grasping a fish or suckling a lion, occasionally accompanied by a merman or attracting sailors in a boat or flanked by dol­ phins as supporters (the dolphin, once sacred to Venus, was another symbol for amorousness).4 The twenty-eight misericords in Holy Trinity Church, Strat­ ford-on-Avon, form a fairly representative collection. One shows St. George standing on and spearing the dragon; another has a hunted unicorn, crouching before a seated maiden. The motif of amorousness or lechery is represented in Shakespeare’s parish church in various ways: a naked woman riding a deer, holding flowers in her right hand; a mermaid holding a mirror and combing her hair, with a merman; a mask of the head of a man with ram’s horns, having a dolphin and a goat...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 348-382
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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