Cats and Shakespeare

The 23rd April is Shakespeare Day, so we thought we would bring you some high culture!  Did you know that Shakespeare referenced cats in many of his plays? 

Some of the references include:

Macbeth:  Unsurprisingly, cats are mentioned in Macbeth, when one of the three witches says, ‘thrice the brindled cat hath mew’d’.

Cats have been associated with witches and witchcraft for millennium, so it’s no surprise that they are referenced in Macbeth.  But it is surprising to note that as early as the 16th century, cats were described by their colour and markings.  Tortoiseshell or “torties” for short, aren’t true tri-coloured cats.  They are mainly a black and orange colour that is swirled in a “brindle” pattern. They are nearly always female and are sometimes patterned with small splashes of white.

Romeo and Juliet:  Shakespeare borrowed the name Tybalt (as in Tybalt the cat) from the fable of Reynard the Fox and used it in this play.  Tybalt was Juliet’s cousin.  The character Mercutio, who was Romeo’s best friend, hates him and gives him the catty nicknames of ‘Rat Catcher’ and Prince of Cats’.  He also refers to the myth that cats have nine lives when Mercutio remarks ‘Good King of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives’. These insulting remarks provoked a street brawl, during which Tybalt kills Mercutio.  Romeo then takes revenge and stabs Tybalt leading to his death.

The Merry Wives of Windsor:  In this play, Falstaff remarks that Pistol has ‘cat-a -mountain’ looks.  This references the term ‘gato-montes’ which is Spanish for wild cat, (which is meant as an insult), although cat livers today appreciate the beauty of wild cats.

Shakespeare was part of the English Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement dating from the late 15th century to the early 17th century and mostly associated with Elizabethan England.    He wrote most of his plays between 1589 and 1613.  This was over 100 years before cats started to become widely domesticated in England in the 18th century.  This probably explains why his references to cats are negative, but we think it demonstrates the impact that cats had on the human psyche, even before they purred their way into our hearts.

Here are a few quotes from Shakespeare that are gentler, and if translated into 21st century language, are almost complimentary:

  • Quote: “Do not be like the cat who wanted a fish but was afraid to get his paws wet” Translation: Go for it!
  • Quote: “I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream”. Translation: I’d make a good look out.
  • Quote: “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. Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” Translation: Cats smell better than humans.(A longer explanation of this quote is that humans rely on animals for their clothes, and unclothed, we are simply two legged animals that are inferior to many other animals because we don’t produce , silk or leather. And we wear perfume that can be made from the secretions of a cat)We can’t claim to be as old as a Shakespeare play, but we do have 120 years of history behind us.  Why not buy a copy of our book that tells the story of our charity and also includes a short chapter about how cats started to become widely domesticated in the Victorian era.