Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Of the flattering, pampered, reviled, predatory, “harmless, necessary” early modern cat


One of several catsOne of several cats
Edward Topsell. The historie of foure-footed beastes. 1607 Folger Shakespeare Library.

As I write this post, one of my two cats is sleeping in my lap. Just like the cat Edward Topsell describes in his Historie of Four-Footed Beastes (1607), my cat, Creature, “love[s] fire and warme places” and “to lie soft.” “Watchfull and warye,” she hates “wet and water”; also much like the cat Topsell depicts, she is “a neate and cleanely creature, oftentimes licking her own body to keepe it smooth and faire, hauing naturally a flexible back for this purpose.”

It’s not surprising that Topsell’s emblematic cat should so closely resemble my cat. Unlike the other animals I have discussed in this series, cats are just as familiar to us as they were to people in Shakespeare’s day. What may be more surprising, though, is how various early modern attitudes toward these “familiar and well knowne beast[s]” could be.

While many of us today think of cats primarily as pampered pets and cherished internet weirdos, for early modern Europeans cats ran the gamut, from pests and carriers of disease, to indicators of witchcraft and other feminine misbehavior, to objects of affection and partners in play. Shakespeare’s own references to cats display such a variety. Trying to shake Hermia off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander calls her “thou cat, thou burr! vile thing,” (3.2.270), and Macbeth’s First Witch calls out to Graymalkin, a common name for a cat that could also be applied to a “jealous or imperious old woman,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1.1.9). In other places, he references a cat’s behavior, as when Falstaff insists he is “as vigilant as a  cat to steal cream” (Henry IV, Part 1 4.2.59). The Oxford English Dictionary also credits Shakespeare with the first reference to a cat’s purr, in All’s Well That Ends Well (5.2.19).

Cat and miceCat and mice
In this image from Aesop’s fables with his life: in English, French & Latin, a bemused cat looks on as a “Mouse Committee” decides that a bell should be placed around the cat’s neck, although no one volunteers. The moral reads “Good Councell’s easily given, but the effect Oft renders it, uneasy to transact.”

Early modern people were especially fascinated with the way cats–which are almost always gendered as female–play with their prey. As Topsell describes, the cat “is wonderfull nimble, setting vpon her prey like a Lyon, by leaping: and therefore she hunteth both rats, all kinds of Myce, & Birds.” This skill at hunting pests made cats highly useful, but that quality of playfulness that Topsell calls “sport” also seems to have made some authors uncomfortable.

Cat in a cage surrounded by miceCat in a cage surrounded by mice
George Wither. A collection of emblemes, ancient and moderne… 1635. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In The Rape of Lucrece, for example, Shakespeare compares the rapist, Tarquin, to a “foul night-waking cat” attacking a helpless mouse (554). In his collection of emblemes, ancient and modern, George Wither takes this idea even further, comparing “A Tyrannous, or wicked Magistrat” to “a ravenous cat,” who will punish the mouse for the very same offences he commits. Even worse,

hee [the cat] cannot bee content,
To slaughter them, who are as innocent,
As hee himselfe; but, hee must also play,
And sport his wofull Pris’ners lives away . . .
For, by much terrour, and much crueltie,
Hee kills them, ten times over, e’re they die,
When, such like Magistrates have rule obtain’d,
The best men wish their powre might be restrain’d:

In a sad irony, humans could be just as cruel to cats as cats are to mice, a point that Benedick makes in Much Ado About Nothing when he swears that he’ll never love a woman: “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me” (1.1.252). This is just one of many depressing examples, not uncommon in a society that often treated animal cruelty as entertainment (for an example very close to Shakespeare’s own professional home, consider the bear garden). As Karen Raber points out in “How to Do Things with Animals: Thoughts On/With the Early Modern Cat,” “humans have [in cats] an unsettling mirror of aspects of their own ‘nature’ as willfully, arbitrarily violent toward inappropriate targets” (105).

Cat with rooster in its mouthCat with rooster in its mouth
Henry Peacham. Minerua Britanna. 1612. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Of course, not everyone felt this way about the “harmless necessary cat” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.56). There are many stories about people showing affection for cats, although sometimes the cat lover is looked at with suspicion, especially when she is a woman. A 1695 tract, for example, tells the story of “an Old Miserable Woman” who lived so frugally that upon her death she left the enormous fortune of “about Eighteen Hundred Pounds, to her CAT; using to say often, when the CAT Mew’d, / Peace PUSS, peace; Thou shalt have All, when I am Dead.” Sadly, the cat does not make good in the story: “Her Belly sav’d it for her CAT, /But PUSS must shew the WILL for that.”

For other women, a close association with cats could be seen as one among many signs of witchcraft, as could toads, rats, and other small animals. In several witchcraft treatises of the period, women are even accused of turning into black cats.

Matthew Hopkins. The discovery of vvitches.Matthew Hopkins. The discovery of vvitches.
Matthew Hopkins. The discovery of vvitches: in answer to severall queries, lately delivered to the judges of assize for the county of Norfolk. 1647. Folger Shakespeare Library. 144- 461q

Cats could also be associated with illness. Topsell describes several groups of monks who were “much given to nourish and play with Cattes,” and who became infected with diseases “by stroking and handeling” their pets. He is especially concerned that people “who keep their cats with them in their beds” will “have the aire corrupted,” concluding “that this is a dangerous beast.”

And yet there is something undeniably alluring about cats. Even skeptical Topsell allows himself to be interrupted by them. After insisting that “it is needless to spend any time about [a cat’s] loving nature to man,” he spends a lot of time discussing just that, enumerating how

she flattereth by rubbing her skinne against ones Legges, how she whurleth with her voyce, having as many tunes as turnes, for she hath one voice to beg and to complain, another to testifie her delight & pleasure, another among her own kind by flattring, by hissing, by puffing, by spitting, insomuch as some have thought that they have a peculiar intelligible language among themselves. Therefore how she beggeth, playeth, leapeth, looketh, catcheth, tosseth with her foote, riseth up to strings held over her head, sometime creeping, sometimes lying on the back, playing with one foot, somtime on the belly, snatching, now with mouth, & anon with foot.

Topsell concludes by insisting that playing with a cat is “an idle mans pastime . . . because they which love any beasts in a high mesure, have so much the lesse charity unto man.” But many people, from philosophers and poets to artists and scholars, have found much more than an idle pastime in looking at and playing with cats. One of these is Shakespeare’s contemporary, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne.

In “An Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne critiques what we might now call human exceptionalism, particularly when it comes to communication. For Montaigne, it is self-evident that animals feel, desire, plan, communicate, and make choices; if we humans fail to notice, that is indicative of our ignorance, not theirs. In what is perhaps his most famous example, he asks: “When I am playing with my Cat, who knowes whether she have more sport in dallying with me, than I have in gaming with her?” (John Florio’s translation). Montaigne here reminds us what every cat-lover already knows, and what everyone who studies animals in any period should strive to remember: while we are always looking at, thinking about, and forming opinions about animals, they are doing the same to us.

A Cat May Look Upon a King title pageA Cat May Look Upon a King title page
Anthony Weldon. A cat may look upon a king. 1652. This scathing political takedown of James I by Anthony Weldon does not ever directly address its title, taken from an English proverb, but the image further reinforces the idea: everyone is entitled to an opinion about the king.