The Paragon of Animals: Representing Human Animality in Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare
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Taking its title from Hamlet’s paradoxical definition of man as “the paragon of animals,” my study examines how pre-Cartesian conceptions of humans as animals assume lines of similitude and difference across species that expose the instability and implications of man’s exalted place among the beasts. In my first chapter I examine the horse as a figure of nobility and governance, and analyze how Philip Sidney’s actual experience atop a horse informs his conception of rhetorical governance as equestrian art in the Defence of Poesy. I illustrate how Sidney refines his equestrian analogy to justify the exclusivity of poetic production, and I analyze how the poet-horseman’s persuasion of the reader-horse presents an elite model of affective communication and instruction that offers insights into the persuasive experience of human and nonhuman subjects alike. The second chapter examines the lion in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to consider how the comparison of Una’s lion with Redcrosse, whom Una calls “my Lyon, and my noble Lord” (I.iii.7.6), leads to a continued reassessment of human instinct and masculine aggression by way of the beast’s tempered rage and noble kindness. By tracing the lion’s more aggressive attributes through a series of leonine figures, I show how Spenser’s zoomorphism of human figures reflects his anxiety surrounding masculine aggression, human animality, and material embodiment. The third chapter then turns to the polysemy of “kind” in William Shakespeare’s King Lear to assess how Lear’s use of animal imagery and concern for kind-ness contributes to an increasingly blurred distinction of kind/unkind as well as human/nonhuman. This chapter also examines the play’s domesticated canine figures and considers how Lear’s vision of human animality and vulnerable physicality generates new avenues of kind-ness among fellow sufferers and questions how one may recognize and extend kindness beyond species and social boundaries.