Renaissance Animal Things



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Renaissance Animal Things

Erica Fudge, University of Strathclyde


Animal Matter and So-Called Human Culture
In their Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820 Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl record ‘nearly 4,000 terms found used in documents relating to trade and retail in early modern Britain.’ The objects listed in the Dictionary range from the easily recognizable ‘oats’ and ‘sauce spoons’ to the now lost ‘deadhead’ (used for red pigment) and ‘scabious water’ (good, apparently, for ‘diseases of the breast and lungs’). The first animal object in the dictionary sits between the opening entry, ‘Abc’ – a child’s spelling book – and the third, ‘Absinthe’ – the plant wormswood. It is ‘Abortive vellum’: that is, ‘vellum made from the skins of aborted calves or other animals. It provided a soft skin with a fine grain suitable for art work.’1 This, in many ways, might exemplify many animal commodities: in it the actual animal’s presence seems to have disappeared, to have been overlaid by human culture.2 But this is not always the case, of course, and some items in the catalogue offer another set of possibilities for early modern consumers in which the animal is more obviously present: the last two animal entries, for example, are ‘Yorkshire ham’ and ‘Young beast’: dead or alive – meat or beast – these animals are commodities.3

The Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities affords a fascinating glimpse into a world of stuff. This is a world that has become a key area of inquiry in Renaissance studies over the past fifteen years. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, for example, whose work has been important to my own thinking, have focused on clothes and the movement of clothing through inheritance and the second-hand market and have traced new ways of thinking about class and gender relations in Renaissance culture through this research.4 For them, as for others, the object has displaced the text: things have supplanted language as a focus of critical attention.5 For scholars like me who work in Renaissance studies and in animal studies the focus on material objects rather than textual representations brings with it new possibilities but also new problems. For while, as the Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities reveals so clearly, there is an abundance of animal matter to deal with in early modern England, there is also a possibility that concentrating on animals as the stuff of the market might go against one of the central tenets of animal studies which is to acknowledge and engage with animals as active presences in the world. When this happens – when the animal is regarded as an agent - the human can be seen in a new light: as a being relying on and inseparable from animals to the extent that the human world can only be regarded as the so-called human world; as one constructed by numerous participants, not all of which are members of our own species.6 The danger is that reading animal matter rather than reading living beings might, in short, only reinforce the perspective that relegates animals to the realm of inert objects. Can livestock, I wonder, ever be more than live stock?

The first way to reconcile the apparent disjunction between an interest in animal stuff and an interest in animals as active presences in the world is to note that a living animal and animal matter are not separate categories. Like subject and object they are utterly intertwined.7 Thus, while it is obvious that live animals and dead animal products are not the same, assuming a distinction between, say, the cow in the field and the milk in the carton actually obscures the reality in which milk produces cows as much as cows produce milk. Denying this entanglement – maintaining the opposition of subject (active) and object (passive), animal and matter – perpetuates a system that can present us with happy cows and with commoditized milk simultaneously.8 But as well as this I want to propose – and this is the focus of this essay - that animal matter can have an active presence in so-called human culture too. And in response to this double meaning – the inseparability of animal and product, the potential agency of animal stuff - I propose a term that makes inseparable living animal and dead matter: ‘animal-made-object’. This term carries two simultaneous meanings: 1) the animal-made object - the object constructed from an animal; and 2) the animal made-object - the objectified animal. Using this term might, I hope, not only remind us of the concurrent status of animals as both agents and matter but also of the nature of the relationship we have with them.

As well as my adoption of this term there are two theoretical perspectives that act as important lenses through which to bring animal matter into focus in animal studies that I want briefly to outline here. The first – and the most familiar one to scholars working in the field - is Actor Network Theory (ANT). This offers a conception of agency that allows us to see animals as active presences without having to assert that they have pseudo-human subjectivity.9 Indeed ANT proposes that humans themselves are simply actors in networks,10 and that the concept ‘pseudo-human subjectivity’ is meaningless because ‘human subjectivity’ itself does not exist in any a priori sense. As John Law puts it: ‘The argument is that thinking, acting, writing, loving, earning – all the attributes that we normally ascribe to human beings, are generated in networks that pass through and ramify both within and beyond the body. Hence the term, actor-network – an actor is also, always, a network.’11

In a recent essay Bruno Latour traces one way in which such ideas about the human are resisted. He notes that the relegation of technology to the realm of means rather than ends ‘by a large number of sociologists’ is underpinned by and simultaneously reinforces a conception of who it is that we think we are. In the face of the increasing ‘autonomy’ of technology, he argues, the response of these sociologists is clear: it is to disengage the human ‘from this domination by technologies’ as if such separation were both simple and possible. ‘To become moral and human once again,’ Latour writes, ‘it seems we must always tear ourselves away from instrumentality, reaffirm the sovereignty of ends, rediscover Being; in short, we must bind back the hound of technology to its cage.’12 The canine image here is perhaps accidental – Latour says nothing directly about animals in this essay – but it is clear that his ideas about technology can be usefully applied to the role and place of that group of non-humans. Animals, too often, are bound back, absented from the picture, made to seem unnecessary and inconsequential, with the result that the human emerges as the only necessary and consequential being in the frame. To offer a wonderfully and accidentally surreal example from the discipline of history: in his 1962 study The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England Peter J. Bowden refers to sheep farmers in the late-seventeenth century as ‘wool growers’.13 The animal has been absented from this image as a sentient being with a mind of its own (let alone as an agent) and is depicted instead as a kind of invisible – and by implication virtually unnecessary - plant-like organism. And because, in this discourse, plants don’t act, they simply grow, the human is represented as the only actor.

With Latour, many scholars are attempting to challenge such assumptions. Lucas D. Introna, for example, takes us towards the second theoretical perspective that I think will aid in bringing animal matter into animal studies, and offers what might have been (but wasn’t) written as a direct response to Bowden’s image of sheep farmers as wool growers. Introna writes:


we most often do not consider these things that surround us beyond their instrumental value. They seem just to be there, available (or sometimes not) for us to draw upon. Lurking in the shadows of our intentional arc they sometimes emerge as relevant, become available, fulfil their function, and then slip back into the forgotten periphery of our intentional project – often doing the invisible work that was allocated them in a now forgotten time and place. In many ways we have allocated to them the role of silent workers, the décor and backdrop that constitute the possibilities of our lives, but are best forgotten. Nevertheless, as we draw on them they become more and more part of who we are, or who we are becoming.14
ANT serves to remind us, then, of two things: first, of the presence of all the ‘silent workers’ that make up our so-called human world; and second, of their place in constructing who it is that we are. It serves, if you like, to bring back the abortive vellum, not as mere background, but as an agent in the world.

The second theoretical perspective that I think might allow a focus on the matter made from animals to be a productive site for work in animal studies is less well known in that field, despite its often close relations to ANT. It is present in Introna’s conception of the stuff that lurks in the ‘shadows of our intentional arc’, and is thing theory.15 According to Bill Brown, an object is perceived to possess power and agency in the world through its emergence as a ‘thing’. He writes:


We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us; when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.16
Thing theory allows us to recognize that objectified animals, that is, animals living or dead, can and should be read as having active presences in the world: they are ‘asserting themselves’ (Brown’s phrase) or are recalcitrant (mine) - the OED’s happily animalistic definition of the word ‘recalcitrance’ is that it is a ‘kicking against constraint’ and, in her study Domesticated Animals from Early Times, Juliet Clutton-Brock writes of the ‘erratic and recalcitrant … behaviour’ of ‘solitary carnivores’ (her example is the ferret) that cannot be tamed.17 Things, in these terms, are hounds that will not be caged or domesticated. Without human intention, and indeed potentially against human intention, from this perspective the animal-made-object can be seen to construct new meanings, beings and relationships. It is a truly active presence in the world.

My intention in this essay, then, is to see whether Latour’s idea that an orthodox – humanist – conception of being human requires us to ‘bind back the hound’ of the non-human ‘to its cage’ holds true in the pre-Enlightenment past as well as in the post-Enlightenment present. And it is to see if paying attention to the recalcitrance of the animal-made-object that thing theory alerts us to might be one way in which such attempts to contain the non-human can be brought into view. My focus here on animal matter rather than on living animals will, I hope, allow me to argue in extremis for the power of the non-human animal to effect change upon so-called human culture even when the animal as sentient presence has been removed.

The paper begins with animal skins, moves to human scent, and concludes with King Lear, a play in which furred gowns hide all and men are forced to smell their way to Dover.
The Thingness of Skin
The recalcitrance of the animal-made-object that makes it a thing can be traced in Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones’ study of gloves in the early modern period. In their article they trace out the many ways in which gloves are used to construct, contain and transport political, sexual, and gendered meaning. And they turn at one point to the gloves referred to by Antonio Pérez, a Spanish exile in Elizabeth’s court. These gloves are used by him in an extended conceit. Writing to Lady Penelope Rich in c.1595 he states:
I have been so troubled not to have at hand the dog’s skin gloves your ladyship desires that, pending the time when they shall arrive, I have resolved to sacrifice myself to your service and flay a piece of my own skin from the most tender part of my body, if such an uncouth carcass as mine can have any tender skin. To this length can love and the wish to serve a lady be carried that a man should flay himself to make gloves for his lady out of his own skin.
The letter concludes:
The gloves, my Lady, are made of dog’s skin, though they are mine; for I hold myself a dog and beg your ladyship to keep me in your service upon the honour and love of a faithful dog.
It is signed ‘Your Ladyship’s flayed dog’.18 Stallybrass and Jones write: ‘Pérez extends a trope that was already well established in classical antiquity. The lover, transformed into gloves, will always be near his beloved. When she wears him, he will be able to touch her.’19

I do not want to challenge Stallybrass and Jones’ interpretation of the glove as sexual metaphor, but I want to suggest that they miss out on a layer of meaning in Pérez’s dog-skin gloves that can be found in the animal that is present in the animal-made-object. The lover is not only wishing to be a glove, but to be a glove made from the skin of a dog.20 As such we might be able to see another Renaissance trope being used here: just as puns are often made between ‘dear’ and ‘deer’, between ‘heart’ and ‘hart’ (a mature male deer, or ‘an animal with at least ten tines’21) in the love poetry of the period, so Pérez is presenting an animal pun here: this admirer is dogged in that he is utterly faithful to his mistress.

But in his use of the conceit of the dog-skin gloves Pérez is not only displaying his loyalty, he is also what we might term becoming doggish; he is being made canine. And this, I think, is where the gloves assert themselves against humanist intent. In short, it is where the ‘caging’ – the utter restraining - of the hound that is present in the flaying and in the manufacture of the gloves is undone and the animal-made-object becomes a thing.22 The dog’s persistent presence in the gloves seems to work against rather than with the sexual symbolism in that the extended conceit might be read not as a metaphor of fidelity but as bestializing – as making unnatural - the sexual innuendo and thus possibly both Pérez and Lady Rich. In this period the dog is a man’s best friend: the phrase ‘loue me, loue my Dogge’ appears in Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses of 1583 where Stubbes says that it is ‘a common saiyng amongest all men’, for example.23 But a dog is also a despicable less-than-human creature. In The Merchant of Venice, which was written perhaps a year after Pérez’s letter, Shylock mocks Bassanio’s request for a loan asking him:
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key …

Say this: ‘Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys?’24
I am not suggesting that the Spanish Pérez knew to represent his outsider status through the image of a dog, but am proposing that the dog in the dog-skin gloves that he discusses can be interpreted as being recalcitrant, as kicking against the intention of the human. The putative lover utilizes two established tropes of love poetry – the sexualization of the glove and the lover as punning animal – but in doing so he also emphasizes the reality of the dog in the gloves, and as a result his own body becomes a carcass. As Stallybrass and Jones note in a different context in their essay: ‘Where does the skin of animal end and the skin of human begin? It is hard to tell.’25 This difficulty I read as evidence of the recalcitrance of the animal-made-object which makes it an animal thing.

The fact that Stallybrass and Jones do not pursue their question in relation to gloves further is a pity because animal skin (as they point out in another study) is an interesting thing in early modern thinking because its relation to the human is a complex one. According to Genesis 3 Adam and Eve experience shame at their nakedness after the Fall and clothe themselves in fig leaves. But God replaces these: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.’ (3:21) In their book Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory Jones and Stallybrass recognize the ambiguity of God’s ‘gift’:


In making clothes for Adam and Eve, God gives them his livery. His livery is both a form of protection and a threat. Fig leaves, the clothes that Adam and Eve made for themselves, are minimal and temporary. These vegetable forms will wear out. In contrast, animal skins give greater warmth and have a longer shelf life. But they also inscribe upon the bodies of Adam and Eve the first deaths in Eden. For animal skins become clothing through the deaths of the animals. In asserting their independence from God, Adam and Eve clothe themselves. In reclaiming them as his subjects, God reclothes them in his livery – a livery of protection, but also a livery haunted by death.26
Animal skins thus mark humans as all-powerful (animals will be killed for them) and simultaneously as all-frail (they need animals to be killed for them), and this paradox can be traced in two very different readings of skins in this period.

Phillip Stubbes, the man who declared the commonness of the declaration ‘loue me, loue my Dogge’, argued that animal skin was given to Adam and Eve out of pity and was thus


meane & base attyre [which] should be as a rule, or pedagogie vnto vs, to teach vs [that] we ought rather to walke meanelye, and simplye, then gorgiously, or pompously: rather seruing presente necessitye, than regarding the wanton appetits of our lasciuiouse mindes: Not withstandinge I suppose not, that his heauenlye maiesty would, that those garments of lether, should stande as a rule or patterne of necessytie vnto vs, wherafter we shold be bou[n]d to shape all our apparell for euer, or els greeuouslye to offende: but yet by this, wee may see, his blessed will is, that we should rather go an ace beneth our degree, than a iote aboue.27
For Stubbes, corruption in clothing comes in ornament and overreaching, whereas the skin of a dead animal marks on the human self-abasement and is thus the closest that fallen man can come to holiness.28

There is, though, another interpretation of animal skin in this period which takes as its scriptural model not God’s introduction of animal death into Paradise in Genesis 3 but, I suggest, a second story of divine prophecy and human failing from Genesis 25-27. In the tale of Jacob and Esau God has foretold their mother Rebekah before their births that the hierarchies of primogeniture will be overturned, and that ‘the elder shall serve the younger’ (Genesis 25:23). Despite this Rebekah encourages her younger son Jacob not to wait to see the fulfillment of God’s will, but to bring it about himself. So at his mother’s entreaty he puts on Esau’s clothes and covers his own smooth hands and neck with the skins of goats in order that he should be mistaken for his hairier older brother by their father Isaac who ‘was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see’. (27:1) Indeed, in the 1568 interlude The Historie of Iacob and Esau, gloves appear once again to challenge identity. Rebekah says to her younger son:


I haue brought sleues of kid next to thy skin to weare.

They be made glouelike, and for eche finger a stall:

So that thy fathers feeling soone beguile they shall.29
Jacob’s aim is to trick his father in order to receive the blessing due to Esau, and he is thus, like Adam, another man seduced from the right path by a woman.

In this story animal skin marks out the fraudulent nature of the wearer: here Jacob is not so much a man going ‘an ace beneath [his] degree’, as Stubbes saw the wearing of skin. He is, in his disguise, an image of human lack of faith in God. The villain of the piece though is perceived to be Rebekah who, just as later Judas would have no faith in God’s capacity to forgive his sin when he committed suicide, doubts that God will fulfill his prophecy. Calvin wrote of her failing at this moment:


She knewe [that] it was an immutable decree, by which Jacob was elected and adopted. Why then doth she not patiently tarrie, vntill God confirme in very deede, & do shewe that the same is ratified, which he hath pronounced from heauen? Therefore she obscuring the heauenly oracle with a lye, abolisheth so much as in her lyeth, the grace promised to her sonne.30
Rebekah appears to have agency in that she makes a man dress in animal skin, but in exhibiting this capacity she actually undermines the very structure by which such agency exists. She questions God’s authority and as such disputes the source of human power. As the prologue to the printed copy of The Historie of Iacob and Esau puts it: ‘For it is not … in mans renuing or will, / But in Gods mercy who choseth whome he will.’31

Jacob’s disguise, with its concomitant challenge to the divine, provides, I suggest, a scriptural context for one early modern writer’s evaluation of the danger of wearing pelts. Writing in 1633 William Prynne took a stand against wearing animal ‘skins or likenesse’ arguing that they marked and, significantly, produced postlapsarian human corruption: ‘What is this but to obliterate that most glorious Image which God himselfe hath stamped on us, to strip us of all our excellency, and to prove worse than bruits?’32 Where Calvin’s criticism of Rebekah is that she ‘obscures’ the prophecy of God, Prynne’s attack on the pelt-wearer (an attack for which his ears were clipped like a sheep’s) is that such dressing-up ‘obliterates’ the image of the divine.33 For Prynne it is what animal skin does to a human (and not what a human does to an animal) that is important, and what might be termed the thingness of the animal pelt can be found, as Brown suggested, in the change in the subject-object relations. Wearing skin alters the wearer: the animal-made-object becomes a thing asserting itself in the world and the human becomes just a moldable body and not ‘the temple of God’, as I Corinthians 3:16 has it.

Animal skin, for Prynne, is thus no longer simply the symbol that reminds us of who we are (Stubbes’ position); it is a powerful, active thing with destructive potential. It is worth just quoting a little more from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to clarify Prynne’s true anxiety here:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?

If any man shall defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (I Corinthians 3:16-17)


The ambiguity of ‘him shall God destroy’ seems to fit Prynne’s meaning perfectly. Wearing animal skins will lead God to destroy the individual because the individual has polluted God’s supreme work on earth. But as well as this ‘him shall God destroy’ might also be read as implying that polluting the human body is an obliteration of God who is the source of all order, and thus dressing in animal skins is a destruction of order itself.

Animal skin is thus much more than simply a product and thence illustration of human dominion. Indeed I want to propose that the objectification of animals that is given form in leather cannot be taken as an iteration of human dominion at all as it is that very objectification which produces the animal thing which in turn changes subject-object relations in its revelation of the fragility of the human. Thinking about animal skin, as Laurie Shannon has noted, reveals human skin to be insufficient. In George Wither’s terms, humans lack ‘nat’rall Armour’, they are frail, unlike animals which are born with thick or protective skins.34 Because of this the wearing of pelts becomes necessary for humans, and in this being necessary the non-human becomes dangerously potent; the animal-made-object becomes, in short, a thing. Without animals we are nothing, but with them we are not what we might hope to be.



Skin’s power, though, should be regarded as both particular and general. It is particular in that wearing an animal-made-object is different from, say, eating one. In eating, as I have argued elsewhere, it is the taking in of the animal – its ingestion – that is most discussed in early modern writing.35 But wearing skin also reflects a more general conception of animal things in that the power that resides in the skin of an animal is a power that can also be found in other animal-made-objects, including meat. Thus I want to make a large claim: the persistent presence of the animal in the animal-made-object seems always to defy the objectification which attempts its absenting. Dismembering a living animal actually produces new agents. Thus, to return to the dog-skin gloves, you might say that the animal’s doggedness is not simply a leftover of what has been (it is not just a residue of the living animal that has been removed in the production of leather). The doggedness is actually a product of the objectification itself. This is an assertion I will illustrate by turning to look at another Renaissance animal-made-object: civet.
The Smell of a Human
‘That which wee call Ciuet is nothing else but as it were a superfluous sweate found betweene the flanks of a beast much like vnto a Cat.’36 So wrote Thomas Johnson in 1595. A more accurate description comes from the historian Karl H. Dannenfeldt, who writes that civet ‘is a soft, fatty, yellowish glandular secretion formed in a discharging pocket of two sacs or perineal glands located between the anus and the genitals of both the male and female civet cat.’37

Fig: Civet Cat from Edward Topsell, The Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607), p.757.
Civet is also very much - in Europe anyway – a Renaissance animal-made-object. For while, as Dannenfeldt notes, castoreum from beavers, musk from male deer and ambergris from the stomach of the sperm whale were all known in the ancient world as sources of or foundations for perfume, civet was only discovered by Europeans in the mid-fifteenth century, and only became widely available as a commodity from the early sixteenth-century onwards as colonial expansion into Africa and Asia took place. The value of the animal – like a sheep’s value – lay in its continuing productivity: it was not killed when civet was removed, and this made the animal a profitable commodity.

As with skin, civet both constructs and upsets notions of being human. Like leather it is worn. But civet goes beyond leather. Not only is perfume put onto the human body, thus changing its external manifestation - its smell rather than its appearance in this instance. Perfume also enters into the body – as does meat, but here in the form of aroma. And it is in this doubleness, I think, that the specific power of civet lies. Civet has the potential to transform the human both from without and from within and this is revealed in its impact on human smell – and I mean that in both internal and external senses: the aroma given off by the human, but also the human ability to sense the aroma of the world. In the first meaning of ‘human smell’ civet does not simply remind humans that, like animals, they give off an odor. Wearing perfume (with its animal foundation) reveals that early modern humans actually chose to smell like animals, and thus that the human will, which should keep the human human, seemed to work against them. So, in 1622, in another kind of human will, John Jane, a sailor, is a man of his age when he bequeaths 30 shillings to one colleague on his ship The Charles, and then states: ‘Alsoe I giue vnto John Betchered and Nicholas Johnson both belonging to the said shipp one Civet cat equally betweene them’. He knows the value of his Renaissance animal-made-object.38 Indeed, the early modern period is of particular note in relation to civet. Alain Corbin has found that in the late eighteenth century ‘Ambergris, civet and musk went out of fashion’ for those higher up the social scale; that the enlightenment brought with it a belief that animal scents ‘belonged to the masses.’39 Philip Stubbes, writing 200 years before Corbin traces this shift, thus appears to be ahead of his time when he argues that


these … palpable odors, fumes, vapours, smells of these musks, cyuets, pomanders, perfumes balmes & suche like ascending to the braine, do … denigrate, darken and obscure y[e] spirit and sences, then either lighten them, or comfort them any manner of way.40
The human senses are ‘obscured’ by scents, just as Rebekah obscured the will of God through goat skin. And, to return to Introna’s image, the ‘fumes’ do their invisible work and challenge human intent.

In the second meaning of ‘human smell’ (our capacity to sense the aroma of the world around us) another kind of loss of controlling power is experienced by humans. As Eleanor Margolies puts it: ‘Smells pose a pungent challenge to philosophies of autonomous action … [they] do not remain attached to their source, nor respect boundaries’, but instead display a freedom that interrupts the perceived dominion of humans thus revealing the latter to be mythical and not real.41 But it is not just its power to travel beyond the rule of humans that marks the danger of smell. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno argued that ‘When we see we remain what we are; but when we smell we are taken over by otherness.’42 Stable identity is shattered by odor, and perfume can thus be read as a self-inflicted wound to that superior being called the human. ‘I think therefore I am’, it seems, is challenged by ‘I smell therefore I am something else.’ In these instances – through choice and through loss of control – civet reveals not only its own thingness; it also exposes the fact that the self can undo itself; that the will is recalcitrant; that humans themselves are things.

This linking of the role of the senses with a challenge to a humanist conception of human status echoes concerns raised in the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Where earlier I read that tale as a source of one way of thinking about the wearing of animal skins in the Renaissance, I suggest that it also focuses on human perception and its poverty and provides a link between skin and civet - my two animal things - and the human. If Jacob’s dressing in animal skins marks him as false, the ‘dim’ eyes of his aged father Isaac (who was once replaced by a ram) also construct him as dangerously lacking in that apparently human trait: judgment. Indeed, the trick Jacob plays on Isaac is an abuse not only of his father’s blindness but of his other senses too. Isaac’s sense of smell is deceived because Jacob wears Esau’s raiment which Isaac sniffs to check the veracity of the body before him (as if clothing, unlike perfume, merely projected outwards the natural aroma of the human individual within). Isaac’s taste is fooled in that the meat Jacob brings him is not venison but kid and has actually been prepared by Rebekah and not by Jacob. It is, indeed, only Isaac’s hearing that is true but, ironically, it is not trusted. Having touched his son he says: ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’ After contemplation Isaac trusts what was understood to be the lowest of his senses, touch.43 His failing is not only that he thinks he can work against the will of God by blessing Esau (for God, after all, has already prophesied Jacob’s rule over his older brother), it is also that he has faith in the tangible rather than the intangible. In this he echoes Esau, who gave up his birthright for a mess of pottage (25:33). In 1592 Gervase Babington noted of that moment: ‘For what do they else then contemne spirituall things to obtayne earthly’.44 Skin, smell, stuff: all are linked to shatter the order of the human world.

The story of Isaac and Jacob is not the only place such linking of an animal thing and the failing human senses might have been encountered in early modern England. This dangerous lack experienced by the father who fails to see his true child in a story replete with references to the human senses reappears in a number of ways in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play which should be read as a repository for some negative contemplations of the nature of the human,45 and which was, of course, written by the son of a glover.46

The sub-plot of King Lear contains a key parallel with Genesis 27. The letter that seems to reveal Edgar’s parricidal desires that Gloucester is given by the apparently reluctant Edmund is false, like the skin Jacob presents to his father’s touch at his mother’s bidding. Gloucester asks ‘You know the character [handwriting] to be your brother’s?’ Performing his role, Edmund hesitantly states, ‘If the matter were good, my Lord, I durst swear it were his; but in respect of that, I would fain think it were not.’ ‘It is his’ Gloucester replies,47 echoing Isaac’s judgement: ‘the hands are the hands of Esau’. And the parallel is reinforced when we recall that ‘hand’ in the early modern period was also,

of course, a term for handwriting.48 In both stories fraternal legibility and paternal lack of judgment are linked.

But the failure to tell the true child from the false is, of course, the starting point for the main plot of King Lear too, and for both Gloucester and Lear, their recognition of their failure to read their offspring leads to a focus not only on the senses but also on the status of the human more generally. Gloucester on seeing Poor Tom thought ‘a man a worm’ (4.1.33), and Lear also notes an alternative conception of his own species that uses a particular set of objects to make his point. When he catches sight of the disguised Edgar Lear states:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! (3.4.100-106)
This final sentence names clothes as temporary, as not owned and, for Jones and Stallybrass, it presents clothing as a mark of ‘conflict’ between (human and/or animal) source and wearer.49 I, however, read this moment differently. To Lear, Edgar’s apparent deficiency is both specific and general. Specifically, he is a human lacking in the use of the animal-made-object (silk, hide, wool, perfume). Because of this he is ‘unaccommodated’, he has no place.50 I take this to mean that he has no place in both the kingdom and in the chain of being. Humans, as Wither knew, need the animal-made-object to be who they hope they are. Without them they are revealed as bare animals in borrowed pelts. With them they are protected: ‘Robes and furr’d gowns hide all’ Lear says in the following act (4.4.163). The animal-made-object, so he seems to believe, can mark and produce human power; and without such apparent markers the king sees all of humanity as uprooted. Lear, himself utterly displaced, of course, by his daughters, in fact links regal dominion with human dominion. And it is in the face of the breakdown of both of these structures that he tears off his clothes. Here, as if to underline the power of animal-made-objects – silk, hide, wool, civet – they are recalcitrant even in their absence.

In King Lear then, clothes are no longer simply human possessions, unnoticed necessities (objects, silent workers). Their necessary-ness is their meaning and this makes them things which, as Introna noted, makes them disturbing: ‘as we draw on them, [perhaps we might adapt this to read, ‘as we draw them on’?] they become more and more part of who we are, or who we are becoming’. Earlier Lear had rebelled against denuding claiming superfluity (2.4.262-5). But on the heath, in removing the ‘lendings,’ he acknowledges his true place as nothing more than ‘a poor, bare, forked animal’, and a truly weak animal at that.51

But this acceptance is only temporary. And between the admission that man is ‘a poor, bare, forked animal’ and his declaration that ‘A dog’s obeyed in office’ (4.6.157) – a belated and somewhat Latourian acknowledgment that power is embedded in a network rather than inherent in an individual - Lear interrupts his own thought process and makes a request that must be read as an attempt to return to the order that has been lost: ‘Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, sweeten my imagination.’ (4.6.129-30) As Andrew Hadfield has shown, King Lear is a play full of medicinal herbs,52 and here Lear believes – against Stubbes, but conventionally enough - in perfume’s medicinal qualities. According to Edward Topsell civet can ‘purge the braine’,53 while a thirteenth-century Arab record presents it as ‘a good and useful remedy for faintness of the heart.’ But civet could also be taken orally: according to Pietro Castelli, writing in 1638, when taken in wine civet ‘cheered the heart’.54 All of these effects – purging the brain, remedying faintness of and cheering the heart - would be ideal for Shakespeare’s aged, mad and despairing monarch. But civet also has another power: it can, Lear thinks, return to him his ability to live in a cruel world: it can ‘sweeten [his] imagination’.

In this call for civet, for the animal-made-object, Lear reveals that – despite his glimpse of another kind of human - he still clings to his faith in humanity’s power over the natural world. He believes that his mental clarity (which is part of that natural dominion – John Donne terms such clarity as a ‘disafforestation’ of the mind55) can be reinstated by the presence of the animal-made-object and that he can, to return to Latour, ‘bind back’ the hounds that he sees around (and within) him. There is a logic to this desire that returns us to the Bible. Genesis 2:19 states: ‘And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.’ The animals here are utterly passive: they are ‘brought before’ Adam, and are named. Lear wants to repeat this naming in what you might call worldly terms: he wants to see brought before him an animal-made-object that man has constructed. He wants to see human power as it is emblematized in the reduction of animal to product – the civet cat into the ‘ounce of civet’ - to reassure himself that, at this moment of crisis, there is some order in the universe. He wants to return to a time when man was in complete control of meaning and was thus the sole possessor of agency: when men were men, you might say, and sheep were plants.

But, of course, this is a desire that can never be fulfilled. In his objectification of the civet cat into ‘an ounce of civet’ Lear, like the sociologists Latour criticized, has assumed that an object can have no agency in itself; that the only changes that it can bring about are actually changes made by humans - by, in King Lear, the ‘good apothecary’ who will mix up the medicinal simple.56 But Lear’s faith in the power of the human to transform its world is brought up short. In King Lear Shakespeare uses civet, not as a cure, but as an acknowledgement that a cure is beyond human capacity. He makes clear that possession of an animal-made-object cannot be taken simply as an enactment of dominion. The animal-made-object will not allow for that: it is a thing, and its thingness can be found in the paradox that Lear’s request presents. The King wants, through an animal-made-object, to become human again; to become the dominant being in an ordered universe. But in this desire Lear reveals that his conception of the human is reliant on the persistent and recalcitrant presence of the animal thing, and thus is not the human he imagined at all.

This is something that is brought into violent focus in the play’s final scene when Lear – with awful irony - howls against what he regards as the disorderliness that makes no distinction between humans and animals. ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?’ he asks. (5.3.305-6) All his hopes – all his humanist hopes – are shattered. The hound has not been bound back to its cage, rather it has run rampant. But Lear ends the play still pulling in two directions. On the one hand he asks for help to become the thing he has glimpsed that he is: ‘Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.’ (5.3.308). This is naked man, helpless in the world. But, on the other hand, even as he asks that his clothing be removed, Lear is still clinging to something else: ‘Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ (5.3.309-310) His dying hope is that there is, after all, a difference between Cordelia and a dog, a horse and a rat. He is wrong. Subject-object relations that appeared stable are revealed to be fragile, and the final moments of the play are an acknowledgment not of human agency and superiority (evidenced in a king’s power to divide his own kingdom – where the play began) but that the human is just one actor among many: that it is, indeed, ‘the thing itself’. Or, to put it another way, in King Lear, a play that emphasises the importance of the animal-made-object, the humanist ideal of the human as separate, as an end and not a means, is inevitably itself undone. ‘Break, heart; I prithee, break!’ says Kent as the King dies, and we return, perhaps, to the world of dog-skin gloves and animal punning, for ‘break’ is the correct verb for carving a hart – an aged male deer.57 Thus Lear, at the end of it all, is just a dismembered mature male animal: he, like so many deer in England, is the commodity of a monarch; an animal-made-object.58 He is a Renaissance animal thing.




1 Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl, Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820, in British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=739 (accessed February 16, 2010). ‘Absinthe’ refers to the drink only after 1842.

2 This making invisible of the animal in vellum was challenged, briefly, in the exhibition Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings (British Museum, 22 April to 25 July 2010). Here a piece of sheep vellum was displayed next to a piece of paper and viewers were invited to feel the difference. The curator thus drawing our attention to the animal skin that underpins some of the drawings.

3 Cox and Dannehl, Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities.

4 Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage,” in Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan and Peter Stallybrass ed., Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.289-320.

5 For some discussions of the shift from subject to object in Renaissance studies see Douglas Bruster, Shakespeare and the Question of Culture: Early Modern Literature and the Cultural Turn (New York: Palgrave, 2003); and Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

6 A good example of such work is Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). In this study she describes cattle as ‘agents of empire’ (210).

7 As Steven Connor, reading Michel Serres, has put the relationship between subject and object: they ‘enter into each other’s composition, such that [their] reciprocal constitution … is both inaugural and ongoing.’ Connor, “Thinking Things,” Textual Practice 24:1 (2010), p.4.

8 The absenting of animals from the animal product, meat, and its implications for the eating of animals is a focus of Carol J. Adams’ influential study, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).

9 ANT’s possibilities for animal studies are outlined in Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert, “Animal spaces, beastly places: an introduction,” in Philo and Wilbert ed., Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp.1-34.

10 In ANT the term ‘non-human’ includes animals, technology, architecture, clothing, etc.: all that is not human, in fact.

11 John Law, “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy, and Heterogeneity,” Systems Practice, 5 (1992), p.384.

12 Bruno Latour, “Morality and Technology: The End of the Means,” trans. Couze Venn, Theory, Culture & Society 19:5/6 (2002): p.247.

13 Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Frank Cass, 1962), p.8.

14 Lucas D. Introna, “Ethics and the Speaking of Things,” Theory, Culture & Society 26:4 (2009): p.26. Also working from within ANT, Vinciane Despret has argued that even ethologists – those studying animal behaviour – have ignored the sheepness of sheep. See Despret, “Sheep Do Have Opinions,” in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel ed., Making Things Public: Atmosphere of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), pp.360-368.

15 Julian Yates outlines a difference between ANT and thing theory in his article “Accidental Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies 34 (2006): pp.90-122. He argues that ‘One of the advantages [that the] network-based model of description has over the recent turn back to “things” in Renaissance studies, and in cultural studies more generally, is that it has no truck with distinctions between nature/culture, animal/human, human/machine that frequently, despite our best efforts, tend to remain fairly stable.’ (p.92) Part of what I am arguing in this essay is that the implied criticism of the turn to things need not be true.

16 Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (2001): p.4. See also Brown, “How to do Things with Things (A Toy Story),” Critical Inquiry 24:4 (1998): pp.935-964. The Heideggerian underpinnings of thing theory are outlined in Introna, “Ethics,” p.35.

17 Juliet Clutton-Brook, Domesticated Animals from Early Times (London: British Museum, 1981), p.149.

18 Antonio Pérez cited in Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones, “Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe,” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (2001): pp.128-9.

19 Stallybrass and Jones, “Fetishizing the Glove,” p.129.

20 Stallybrass and Jones’ focus on the gloves rather than the dog-skin could be read as underlining Yates’ point that material studies assume the human/animal boundary to be a stable one. For Yates, see footnote 15.

21 Edward Berry, Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.17.

22 On the different kinds of animal skin in use in the early modern period and the methods of preparation see L.A. Clarkson, “The Organization of the English Leather Industry in the Late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review 13:2 (1960), pp.245-56. On the representation of the role of the flayed animal skin to disrupt human status in medieval writing see Sarah Kay, ‘Legible Skins: Animals and the ethics of medieval reading,’ Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 2:1 (2011), pp.13-32. I owe this last reference to Cary Wolfe.

23 Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London: J.R. Jones, 1583), sig.Qvir.

24 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, in The Oxford Shakespeare ed. Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 1.2.122-7.

25 Stallybrass and Jones, “Fetishizing the Glove,” p.123. The comment is made in a discussion of Titian’s painting Man with a Ripped Glove (c.1523).

26 Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing, p.270.

27 Stubbes, Anatomie, sig.Cvr.

28 Anston Bosman points out that Stubbes seemed to change his mind when, in The Second Part of the Anatomie of Abuses, Conteining the Display of Corruptions (also 1583) he ‘drops the notion of leather’s primitive simplicity and instead associates it with forms of worldly perversion’ because of the corruption associated with leather production. Bosman, “Shakespeare in Leather,” in Leonard Barkan, Bradin Cormack and Sean Keilen eds., The Forms of Renaissance Thought: New Essays in Literature and Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), p.235. I owe this reference to Jonathan Hope.

29 Anon., A newe mery and wittie Comedie or Enterlude, newely imprinted, treating vpon the Historie of Iacob and Esau (London: Henry Binneman, 1568), 4.8, np.

30 John Calvin, A commentarie of Iohn Caluine, vpon the first booke of Moses called Genesis (London: John Harrison and George Bishop, 1578), p.569.

31 Historie of Iacob and Esau Prologue, n.p..

32 William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge, or Actors Tragedie (London: Michael Sparke, 1633), p.891.

33 On Prynne’s ears being clipped as punishment for Histrio-Mastix, see S.R. Gardiner ed., Documents Relating to the Proceedings Against William Prynne in 1634 and 1637 (London: Camden Society, 1877), Volume I, p.17.

34 George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes (1635), book 2, illustration 50 cited in Laurie Shannon, “Poor, Bare, Forked: Animal Sovereignty, Human Negative Exceptionalism, and the Natural History of King Lear,” Shakespeare Quarterly 60:2 (2009): p.186. Shannon’s essay is a detailed account of the implications of the need to dress humans in animal skins and its negative impact on human status. Like me, Shannon uses King Lear as a text illustrating and illustrated by these ideas.

35 See “Saying Nothing Concerning the Same: On Dominion, Purity and Meat in Early Modern England,” in Erica Fudge ed., Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans and Other Wonderful Creatures (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), pp.70-86.

36 Thomas Johnson, Cornucopiae, or diuers secrets wherein is contained the rare secrets in man, beasts, foules, fishes, trees, plantes, stones and such like (London: W. Barley, 1595), sig.D3v.

37 Karl H. Dannenfeldt, “Europe Discovers Civet Cats and Civet,” Journal of the History of Biology, 18:3 (1985), pp.404-5.

38 London Metropolitan Archive, MS 9172/33, 119 (24 July 1622). The value of the civet cat lies in its continuing productivity, and not its slaughter. Civet could be ‘harvested’ from the animal as often as every two days during the summer months. See Dannenfeldt, ‘Europe Discovers Civet Cats,’ p.420.

39 Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the Social Imagination (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), pp.73 and 76.

40 Stubbes, Anatomie, sig.Gr.

41 Eleanor Margolies, “Vagueness Gridlocked: A Map of the Smells of New York,” in Jim Drobnick ed., The Smell Culture Reader (New York: Berg, 2006), p.112.

42 Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, cited in Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p.123. Lippit offers a brief overview of philosophical conceptions of smell and the human-animal boundary on pp.121-7.

43 Susan Stewart, “Remembering the Senses,” in David Howes ed., The Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (New York: Berg, 2005), p.62. In “The Senses Divided: Organs, Objects, and Media in Early Modern England,” her essay in the same volume, Carla Mazzio notes that in the early modern period touch fell outside of the ways in which the other senses were understood and was thus marginalised: ‘If touch resists quantification, how could it possibly measure up to the standards of “rational” inquiry that emerged during the Renaissance?’ (p.92).

44 Gervase Babington, Certaine plaine, briefe, and comfortable notes vpon euerie chapter of Genesis (London: Thomas Charde, 1592), Fol.111v.

45 See Shannon, “Poor, Bare, Forked,” passim.

46 Jones and Stallybrass note this biographical fact in Renaissance Clothing, p.180. Bosman traces the meanings of leatherworking in the period and its general implications for a reading of Shakespeare in “Shakespeare in Leather”.

47 William Shakespeare, King Lear, Kenneth Muir ed. (London: Routledge, 1989), 1.2.60-64. Subsequent references to this edition are given in the text.

48 See Michael Neill, “‘Amphitheaters in the Body’: Playing with Hands on the Shakespearian Stage,” Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): pp.28-9.

49 Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing, p.32. The use of the term ‘Lendings’ is also discussed by Shannon in “Poor, Bare, Forked” p.196; and Millicent Bell, in “Naked Lear,” Raritan 23:4 (2004): pp.55-7. Bell argues that ‘Lear’s declaration about ‘lendings’ is a philosophical statement (with a postmodern sceptical ring) of the way personal identity is something borrowed, something acquired from the outside.’ (p.58) She doesn’t comment on the fact that this ‘outside’ might be animal.

50 For an account of the various meanings of ‘unaccommodated’ in King Lear, see Michael H. Keefer, “Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin’s God in King Lear,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988), pp.147-168.

51 On this see also Shannon, “Poor, Bare, Forked,” p.196.

52 Andrew Hadfield, ‘Plants in King Lear,’ Notes and Queries, 255 [N.S. 57]:3 (September 2010), pp.385-6.

53 Edward Topsell, The Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607), p.758.

54 Ibn Baithar and Pietro Castelli, both cited in Dannendfeldt, “Europe Discovers Civet Cats,” pp.406 and 427.

55 John Donne, ‘To Sir Edward Herbert, at Juliers,’ in A.J. Smith ed., John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Penguin, 1986), p.218.

56 Louise Hill Curth notes that while parts of animals were used to treat humans, ‘I have been unable to find any examples … of parts of humans being used to treat animals.’ Curth, Care of the Brute Beast: A Social and Cultural History of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p.129.

57 Thomas Dawson, The Booke of Carving and Sewing, cited in Fudge, ‘Saying Nothing,’ p.76.

58 Igor Kopytoff has proposed that even the traded object – the commodity - should be considered to have a biography: for him the slave is the marker of this. Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,’ in Arjun Appadurai ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.65.




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