From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.2):
You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.
That will ask some tears in the true performing of
it: if I do it, let the audience look to their
eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some
measure. To the rest: yet my chief humour is for a
tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to
tear a cat in, to make all split.
The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus’ car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.
This was lofty! Now name the rest of the players.
This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein; a lover is
The OED gives the following definition for ‘to tear a cat’:
to tear a (the) cat: to play the part of a roistering hero; to rant and bluster: cf. tear-cat adj. and n. at tear- comb. form 2. Obsolete.
1600 W. Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream i. ii. 25 I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to teare a Cat in, to make all split. View more context for this quotation
1610 Histrio-mastix 8 Sirrha is this you, would rend and teare the cat upon a stage?
and connects it to a compound ‘tear-cat’:
tear-cat adj. and n.Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈtɛːkat/, U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈtɛrˌkæt/ (a) adj. swaggering, ranting, bombastic (see tear v.1 1d); (b) n. a bully, swaggerer, ‘fire-eater’.
1606 J. Day Ile of Guls sig. A2v I had rather heare two good baudie iests, then a whole play of such teare-cat thunderclaps.
1611 T. Middleton & T. Dekker Roaring Girle sig. K3v Iac. Dap. What’s thy name fellow souldier? T. Cat. I am cal’d by those that haue seen my valour, Tear-Cat. Omn. Teare-Cat?
1821 W. Scott Kenilworth I. xii. 316 A man of mettle, one of those ruffling tear-cats, who maintain their master’s quarrel with sword and buckler.
Both definitions are clear enough for use but neither is satisfying for origin. All my editions are content with citing some combination of the above parallels and the only thing I can readily find that looks deeper is a 2008 piece from the Kenyon Review that documents a few editorial explanations proposed through the years. Borrowing from there we find:
Here, for example, are some tearings of cats, from “A Midsummer-night’s Dream, By William Shakespeare”, ed. Henry Cuningham, Harold F. Brooks, Published by Methuen, 1905:
“Tear a cat: Apparently a proverbial phrase for tearing a passion to tatters (Hamlet, III. ii. 10). Edwards, Canons of Criticism, 1765, p. 52, thinks this a burlesque upon Hercules’s killing a lion.
Heath, Revisal of Shakespeare’s Text, 1765, p. 45, takes Warburton’s emendation, “cap,” seriously, and supposes “it might not be unusual for a player, in the violence of his rant, sometimes to tear his cap.”
Capell takes Bottom seriously, and supposes ‘he might have seen ‘Ercles’ [Heracles] acted, and some strange thing torn, which he mistook for a cat.’”
More adventurous is Andrew Becket in Shakespeare’s Himself Again (pg 267):
The sense is wholly mistaken by the editors. It is not the domestic animal the cat, which is spoken of. For what can possibly be understood of “a part to tear a cat in?” We must read: “a part to tear: a catin.” ” To tear,” is to rant, to bluster. Catin is a french word signifying a drab, a low, vulgar woman. ‘A’ is the french particle which has the power of the adverb ‘like’. The whole will run thus: ‘My chief humor is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely, or a part in which I might rant and bluster like a very drab, a common roarer.’ Hamlet, we may remember, says;
‘Must I unpack my heart with words,
And fall a railing like a very drab.’
In the quotations in which tear cat appears, it should be noted that ‘cat’ is contracted of ‘catin’. Thus, in the Comedy of the Roaring Girl, Tear-cat (roaring woman) [is] the name of a character of the play. It must not be objected that Tear-cat is, in some of the pieces, a male character. A man may be said to rant or rail like a drab, a common woman– and we have an example of it in the lines from Hamlet.”
For my part, the only gesture to an explanation I can come up with is built largely on a later line from the same play when Lysander, trying to get rid of Hermia, says (3.2.260):
Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! vile thing, let loose,
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!
This is the only use I see in Shakespeare of a cat as ‘clinging thing’ but I can (with blind optimism) imagine ‘tear a cat’ coming about as a compression of the idea ‘act a part with such violent gestures that you’d dislodge a clinging cat.’ With even blinder optimism I could pull this one step further from anything to do with an actual cat and link it back to the prototypical stage swaggerer Hercules – the originating idea then becoming a Hercules playing his part so violently that he tears/disorders the cat (=lion) skin integral to his costume.