In his plays, Shakespeare has a lot to say about a lot of topics-love, hate, good, evil. Much has been written on topics ranging from his insults to his magic potions. While no evidence exists that Shakespeare ever lived with a pet cat, he has a lot to say about cats.
Cats in Naming
Cats clearly influenced Shakespeare’s choice of character names, as in Fleance from the Scottish play. In addition, Shakespeare uses a variant spelling of Clawdio, Claudio, for characters in Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure. In Romeo and Juliet he characterizes Tybalt as the King of Cats, meaning a formidable opponent and capable swordsman.
Cats in Proverbs
Shakespeare also uses cat-related proverbs prolifically. For instance, in Hamlet the melancholy Dane muses, “The cat will mew, the dog will have his day,” or as Andy Warhol phrased it in modern times, everyone will have his or her fifteen minutes of fame.
Lady Macbeth, in questioning Macbeth’s doubts about killing King Duncan in order to take his throne, asks why her husband gets her hopes up “Like the poor cat in the adage?” The adage refers to a cat who would eat fish but dares not wet her feet. (Both Macbeths ultimately end up with much more than wet feet.)
A comic drunken scene in The Tempest involves two inept characters-Stefano and Trinculo–and the savage Caliban. Stefano has a bottle of liquor, an elixir previously unknown to Caliban. Stefano exhorts the savage to drink, “Open your mouth. Here is that which will give language to you,” alluding to an old proverb that good liquor will make a cat speak. (If you decide you want to try to make your cat speak, I suggest other means than giving your cat liquor, however.)
Cats in Commentary
Shakespeare also uses cats to comment upon certain situations. In The Tempest, Antonio speaks to Sebastian about corrupting certain servants to achieve evil ends, saying “They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.”
For actors who get roles requiring them to “tear a cat,” as Bottom hopes for in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they will rant and rave, perhaps like a bag of cats. In that same play, Lysander, under the influence of the love-in-idleness potion, thrusts his former lover, Hermia, away with these words, “Hang off, thou cat, thou burr.” (They end up married at the end.)
In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick arrives to challenge Claudio (see above on naming) for unjustly accusing Hero of infidelity. Claudio, surprised by Benedick’s boldness, comments, “What, courage, man. What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.” The allusion to cats refers to the belief that cats have nine lives so it had to be a powerful “care” to kill the cat, thus a powerful emotion in Benedick.
Many years ago, I lived with a cat named Clawdio, an adult cat whom I adopted from a local shelter. Since I gave him a Shakespearean name, I decided to teach him to mew Shakespearean speeches, with no success. I learned the hard lesson that, indeed, you cannot teach an old cat mew tricks.