Horse-Handling in Shakespeare's Poems and Renaissance Codes of Conduct

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Thurston, Jonathan Thurston
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Middle Tennessee State University
Recent critical animal studies of Shakespeare address animals in his plays as anthropomorphic characters—Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602), or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), for example; and as allegories—the animal omens in Macbeth (1606), for instance. However, animals in Shakespeare’s poems—in the Sonnets (1609) and the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594)—have drawn little scholarly attention. The figure of the horse in the poems blends Shakespeare’s conversations with received classical material on the horse as a symbol of eros with contemporary practices regarding equestrian culture. Analysis of the horse trope in Shakespeare’s poems demonstrates his manipulation of both sets of discourses (classical and contemporary) to political ends. The figure of the horse functions in late sixteenth-century England as a culturally embedded metaphor deployed in debates regarding conduct in both political and sexual arenas. In his sonnets, in Venus and Adonis, and in The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare uses the horse metaphor to advance linked critiques of imperialist and sexually heteronormative modes of manipulation. Despite the dismissal of the horse trope as the “too insistent horsification of desire” by scholars such as MacDonald P. Jackson and C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare deepens the thematic significance of the received classical trope (the horse as eros) by incorporating details of his culture’s experience of contemporary horse and human relationships. In both narrative poems, for instance, Shakespeare advances the figure of the horse to promote ideals of Venetian republicanism and to critique Elizabethan and Spanish forms of tyranny. Far from trotting out an exhausted classical commonplace, Shakespeare’s use of the horse metaphor reveals just how deeply equestrian culture informs most expressions of codes of conduct in the Renaissance.
Animals, Equestrianism, Horses, Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis