When, in Henry IV, Part II, Bardolph calls his page a “whoreson upright rabbit,” he’s not exactly thinking of the animal we now know as rabbits. (2.2.84) In Shakespeare’s day, “rabbit” referred specifically to the young of conies (the European rabbit); it was a word like puppy or kitten. Adult rabbits were always called conies, and were clearly understood to be different than hares, their larger, leggier cousins.
Neither hares nor conies are native to England, although ecologists now consider them naturalized. Instead, both animals were brought to England as a source of food: hares by the Romans, perhaps 2,000 years ago, and conies by the Normans in the 12th century.
In Shakespeare’s day, both animals were hunted for food and sport. In his 1576 hunting manual, The Noble Art of Venerie, George Gascoigne describes how to hunt conies with ferrets: “He that would take Conies muste hunte with two or three Spaniels or curres made for the purpose,” which “will drive them into theyr Burrowes.” Then the hunter is instructed to set “pursenettes upon all the holes, or as many of them as you can finde,” and put a muzzled ferret down one of the holes to cause the rabbits to bolt into the nets. However, Gascoigne cautions that he considers “ferrettyng one of the coldest and unpleasantest chases that can be followed.”
Of the two animals, conies were more prized for food, while hares were considered great sport. Much like foxes, hares were chased with dogs across the countryside. When the dogs have caught a hare, Gascoigne’s advice is that “The huntesman shall blowe still a good while, and afterwardes shall clappe and stroke his best houndes on the sides, and shewe them the Hare, saying: Dead boyes, dead.”
Hares were especially valued for the many ways they tried to elude their pursuers. In his Historie of Four-Footed Beastes (1607), Edward Topsell writes that the hare “is a simple creature, having no defence but to run away, yet it is subtile [subtle].” Similarly, Gascoigne maintains “that of all chases, the Hare maketh greatest pastime and pleasure” for “it is great pleasure to beholde the subtiltie of the little poore beaste, and what shift she can make for her selfe.”
Shakespeare takes this idea and, well, runs with it in his poem Venus and Adonis. Having learned that Adonis intends to hunt the dangerous boar, Venus tries to persuade him to hunt the “timorous flying hare,” instead:
“Pursue these fearful creatures o’er the downs,
And on thy well-breathed horse keep with thy hounds,
“And when thou hast on foot the purblind hare,
Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles
How he outruns the wind and with what care
He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles.” (675, 677-682)
Topsell also stresses the hare’s zigzagging craftiness, as well as how her remarkable ears, “like Angels wings, ships sailes, and rowing Oares . . . helpe her in her flight”:
for when she runneth, she bendeth them backward and useth them insteed of sharpe spurs to prick forward her dulnes, & in hir course she taketh not one way, but maketh heades like laborinthes to circumvent and trouble the dogs, that so she may go whether she wil, alwayes holding uppe one eare, and bending it at her pleasure to be the moderator of her chase.
Perhaps because of their ingenuity, hares and conies were also the source of a surprising amount of early modern sympathy. Although his manual is specifically for hunters, Gascoigne includes a poem called “The Hare to the Hunter” that doesn’t pull any punches:
Are mindes of men, become so voyde [void] of sense,
That they can joye to hurte a harmelesse thing?
A sillie beast, whiche cannot make defence?
I wretche? a worme that cannot bite, nor sting?
If that be so, I thanke my Maker than,
For makyng me a Beast and not a Man.
The hare continues, lamenting that it is good for neither gain nor food for “gluttons feasts”; all it offers the hunter is “Some sporte perhaps: yet Grevous is the glee / Which endes in Blood, that lesson learn of me.”
Shakespeare’s Venus, too, expresses a lot of sympathy for the hare, even as she urges Adonis to pursue it. She describes how
“poor Wat, far off upon a hill,
Stands on his hinder legs with list’ning ear
To hearken if his foes pursue him still.
Anon their loud alarums he doth hear,
And now his grief may be compared well
To one sore sick that hears the passing bell.” (697-702)
No wonder that hares were considered, as Topsell writes, to “oftentimes [be] very sad and melancholy”! In a 1632 medical treatise, physician Ludovic Rowzee casts doubt on the assertion of certain Greek philosophers that because the hare “is a melancholy fearful creature” it can cause melancholy in the eater. Rowzee points out that “a Hare is not to fearful, but that you shall see some of them run about, and look up-on the dogs after a daring manner.” It’s conies who “should be more melancholy,” since they hide in “holes and burrowes,” and yet–to Rowzee’s evident frustration–they are “accounted the best meat.”
Perhaps the best-known early modern portrait of rabbit melancholy is Margaret Cavendish’s 17th-century poem, “The Hunting of the Hare.” Echoing Shakespeare in calling the rabbit “poor Wat,” Cavendish goes further, with a full-throated condemnation of men who make “their stomachs graves, which full they fill / With murthered bodies, which in sport they kill” (cited from former Folger fellow Liza Blake’s digital critical edition of Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies).
Objects of gleeful hunting and studies in sympathy, admired tricksters and food for the table, conies and hares are fascinating case studies in how—just as we do today—early modern people held radically conflicting ideas about animals, sometimes even within the pages of the same text.
Next month on Wild Things: a bad omen.