He uses his folly like a stalking-horse

From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (5.4.104-05):

He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the
presentation of that he shoots his wit.

I had a vague sense of stalking-horse from its still-extant extended use in bankruptcy settlements – the stalking horse offer being one designed as a sort of reserve on the assets up for auction, a means of guaranteeing a minimum value they will go for. There’s also apparently another still-extant sense – closer to the original – used in business and politics, an explanation of which can be read here.

But the original use and definition is much more picturesque. It’s also unwieldy so here’s the OED’s refinement first:

1. A horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it. Hence, a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game.

More fun is Gervase Markham’s from his 1621 treatise Hungers Preuention: or The Whole Art of Fowling By Water and Land (online here but requiring some textual restoration as read):

Now forasmuch as these shelters or couerts are after a way then found, and that Fowle doe many times lye so farre remoued within the water, that vnlesse a man doe goe into it where no shelter at all is, more then a man bringeth with him, he cannot possibly compasse a shoote; so that of necessity a man must haue some moouing shaddow or shelter to walke by him; In this case there is nothing better then the stalking Horse, which is any old Iade trayned vp for that vse, which being stript naked and hauing nothing but a string without the neather chappe, of two or three yards longe, will gently and as you giue ocation to vrge him, walke vp and downe in the water which way you will haue him; flodding and eating vpon the grasse or other stuffe that growes there-in; and then being hardy & stoute without taking any affright at the report of the Peice, you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder, bending your body downe low by his side, and keeping his body still full betweene you and the Fowle; Then haueing (as was before shewed) chosen your marke, you shall take your leuell from before the fore part of the Horse, shooting as it were betweene the Horses knees and the water, which is more safe and further then taking the leuell vnder the Horses belly, and much lesser to be perceaued; the shoulder of the Horse covering the body of the man, and the Horse’s legges shaddowing the legges of the man also: and as thus you stalke vpon the greate blanke waters, so you may stalk also along the bankes of Brookes in great Riuers, by little and little winning the Fowle to as neare a station as can be desired, and thus you may doe also vpon the firme ground, whether it be on moor, Heath, or other rotten earth, or else up the tylthe where greene Corne groweth; or generally, in any other haunt where Fowle are accustomably vsde to feede or abide.

Now forasmuch as these Stalking horse, or Horses to stalke withall, are not euer in readinesse, and at the best aske a good expence of time to bee brought to their best perfection: as also, in that euery poore man or other which taketh delight in this exercise, is either not master of a Horse, or if hee had one yet wanteth fit meanes to keepe him: and yet neuerthelesse this practise of Fowling must or should bee the greatest part of his mantenance. In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse with the head bending downeward, as if hee grased, and stoping it with dry Strawe, Mosse, Flocks, or any other light matter, let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise; of which the Browne is the best, and in the midst let it be fixt to a Staffe with a picke of Iron in it to sticke downe in the ground at your pleasure, and stand fast whilest you chuse your marke, as also to turne and winde any way you please, either for your aduantage of the winde, or for the better taking of your leuell, and it must be made so portable that you may beare it easily with one hand, mooving and wagging it in such wise that it may seeme to mooue and graze as it goeth; nether must this in any wise exceed the ordinary stature or proportion of a common Horse, for to bee too low or little will not couer the man, and to be two big and huge will be both monstrous & troublesome, and giue affright to the Fowle, therefore the meane in this is the best measure, and only worth the obseruation.

This sort of thing lends itself to illustrations. Here’s the stuffed canvass stalking-horse from Markham’s text:

From Nicholas Cox’s 1686 The Gentleman’s Recreation (where he also makes mention of a stalking-cow, a search for which produced this modern equivalent):

One I can’t identify the origin of but Wikipedia dates as 1875:

It’s easy to see how the term shifts into the figurative uses given by the OED (A person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected and An underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose). In drama alone we see the above lines from Shakespeare in 1599. Then John Marston in The Malcontent (4.3.126) in 1603:

Yea, provident: beware an hypocrite;
A churchman once corrupted, O, avoid!
A fellow that makes religion his stalking-horse,
He breeds a plague: thou shalt poison him.

And John Webster in The White Devil (3.1.34-38) in 1612:

Oh, my unfortunate sister!
I would my dagger’s point had cleft her heart
When she first saw Bracciano. You, ’tis said,
Were made his engine and his stalking-horse
To undo my sister

From the smoke into the smother

From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1.2.276), Orlando speaking.

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

I had this phrase marked from a past reading as something to look into, expecting to find several parallels elsewhere. It turns out there are none (at least none easily found). It also turns out that its interpretation feels shakier than most commentaries suggest in equating it to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The short version of everything below – and it is far more than I wished when I started writing – is that the surrounding context, line structure, and wording do allow the sense of ‘out of the frying-pan…’ but don’t require it. They also allow a second interpretation that is closer to ‘from one trouble to another [equivalent trouble].’ I tend to prefer this second reading.

The commentaries that make the phrase equivalent to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ point for support to Dent’s Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language, the standard reference for exactly what the title suggests. Dent, however, is himself a middleman here and simply lists the proverb in connection to entry S570 from Wilson’s The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (pg. 574):

Smoke, shunning the | they fall into the fire. Cf. Frying pan.

[Erasm. Adag. 184c: Fumum fugiens, in ignem incidi].

c. 1530 Lucian Necromantia – As the comen proverb is of every man Out of the smoke into the fyre I ran

1535 T. Lupset Exhort Young Men ed. Gee 256 – What faute so ever you may do, let it not be defended with a flase tale: for that were to fle out of the smoke in to the fire.

1549. H. Bullinger Treatise or Sermon B4 – Magistrates had nede of much … fear of god, in takyng vp or in laying downe their warres, les perchaunse in flying the smoke thei fall into the fyre

1576 Pettie ii. 89 – Thinking to quench the coals of his desire, he fell into hot flames of burning fire.

1599 Shakes. A.Y. I.ii.266 – Thus must I from the smoke into the smother.

1666 Torriano It. Prov. 96 no. 22 – Many an one flies the smoke, who afterward falls into the fire.

The structure of the proverb in all given examples is ‘purposefully attempting to evade threat A, a person falls into greater threat B’. So Erasmus’ original ‘fleeing the smoke, I fall into the fire’. So also all senses of the related ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The current version of that proverb has lost any verb of motion but the two earliest examples from the entry in Wilson’s English Proverbs (pg 292) show that it was originally there – 1530 Barclay Eclog. – ‘out of the water thou leapest into the fyre’ and 1528 More – ‘Lepe they lyke a flounder out of a frying-panne into the fyre’. See also the decent entry for the proverb’s history on wikipedia.

This structure can be mapped onto Shakespeare’s line if you assume a condensed phrasing where ‘Thus must I from the smoke into the smother‘ is in conception something closer to ‘Thus must I [in attempting to flee from] the smoke [fall] into the smother.’ The smoke here would be Duke Frederick – La Beau has just warned Orlando at 1.2.250-256 to ‘leave this place‘ because the Duke ‘misconstrues all that you have done.’ And the smother would be Orlando’s brother Oliver – whom we’ve already learned (1.1) has mistreated Orlando throughout his life and, as we soon will learn (2.3), intends to get rid of him by (almost too appropriately) burning him alive. Orlando is then using this scene-end couplet to announce his sense that in turning from the Duke he only returns to a more threatening situation with his brother.

There are issues with this reading though. First is that Orlando at the moment of speaking has no knowledge of his brother’s plot against him. Rather, his sense of his standing with his brother must match Oliver’s concluding remarks from their earlier encounter (1.1.72-74) – ‘Well, sir, get you in. I will not long be troubled with you; you shall have some part of your will. I pray you leave me.‘ ‘Will’ here is a pun that captures both ‘your wish’ and ‘your inheritance.’ It can be given a sinister turn by the audience but it’s clear from Orlando’s response (75-76) – ‘I will no further offend you than becomes me for my good‘ – that he doesn’t himself take it that way. Accordingly, it’s not obvious to me that he’d be conceiving of the turn from Frederick to Oliver as a movement from a bad situation to a worse.

A second issue is with smother. This is Shakespeare’s only use of the noun – though he uses the verb nine times elsewhere – so we have to rely for meaning on the OED. It gives smother as ‘Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.).’ I’m not convinced that either this definition or the usage examples on which it is based (provided in full below) justify treating smoke … smother as parallel to smoke … fire in the sense of the latter element representing an increased danger. Instead – and especially given the OED’s note of smother’s frequent coupling with smoke – they seem to point more to treating smoke … smother as functional synonyms.

In this reading Orlando is saying no more than ‘I am now moving from one threatening situation to another.’ You don’t have to supply a sense of ‘trying to avoid bad Frederick, I fall into the worse Oliver’ and you don’t have to understand ‘smother‘ as heightened in danger over smoke. You can instead treat the choice of smoke…smother as dictated by two complementary desires – the wish for parallel internal sound repetitions each line of a rhyming couplet (italics below) and the need for line-end rhymes in that couple (bold below):

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

This blew right through the work day.


Below is the OED definition of smother and list of uses.

a. Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.)
α.
c1175 Lamb. Hom. 43 Þet þridde [was] fur,..þe siste smorðer.
?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 199 Þe deofles chef. þet nis nocht bute to helle smorðere.
1393 W. Langland Piers Plowman C. xx. 303 When smoke and smorþre smyt in hus eyen.
c1540 (▸?a1400) Destr. Troy 11796 Hit fest was on fyre, & flappit out onone, Vnto smorther & smoke.
β., γ.
a1300 Body & Soul in Map’s Poems (Camden) 339 Þe erþe it openede anon, smoke and smoþer op it wal.
a1400 Adultery 87 in Herrig Archiv LXXIX. 420 Smoþer & smoke þer come owte wylde.
a1400 Stockh. Medical MS. ii. 598 in Anglia XVIII. 322 Ȝif vnder nethyn þer hennys sate Of hennebane a smoþer thou make.
a1470 Dives & Pauper (1496) vi. xxii. 270/2 There shall be brennynge fyre and smoder without ende.
a1618 J. Sylvester Urania lxxxii A thick, dark, pitchy Cloud of smoak, That round-about a kindling Fire suppresses With waving smother.
1657 P. Henry Diaries & Lett. (1882) 33 When a fire is first kindled there’s a great deale of smoke and smother.
1748 B. Robins & R. Walter Voy. round World by Anson iii. viii. 381 The great smother and smoke of the oakum.
1789 G. White Nat. Hist. Selborne 20 Nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation.
1828 J. R. Planché Desc. Danube i. 25 The distant dome of Saint Paul’s rising above the smother of our huge metropolis.
1882 R. D. Blackmore Christowell l Filled with blue sulphureous fog, and smother of bitumen.
proverbial.
a1616 W. Shakespeare As you like It (1623) i. ii. 277 Thus must I from the smoake into the smother .
1890 Daily News 25 June 5/1 They had gone from the smoke into the smother.
figurative.
1565 J. Jewel Replie Hardinges Answeare Concl. sig. IIi3v Now the Sonne is vp: your Smooder is scattered.
1654 T. Gataker Disc. Apol. 12 A great smother of foggie fumes, raised by slanderous tongues.
1695 J. Collier Misc. upon Moral Subj. 2 Why else do they..spend their Taper in smoke and smother?
1809 B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas IV. x. i. 20 The mad blockhead was so suffocated by the smother of authorship.
1975 N. Nicholson Wednesday Early Closing ix. 176 A dull smother of hopelessness hung over the town like the smutch from a smoking rubbish dump.

They hate us youth; down with them; fleece them

A portion of the Gadshill robbery scene from Henry IV part 1 (2.2), the joke being that Falstaff is himself an old (and quite fat) man.

Enter the Travellers

First Traveller
Come, neighbour: the boy shall lead our horses down
the hill; we’ll walk afoot awhile, and ease our legs.
Thieves
Stand!
Travellers
Jesus bless us!
FALSTAFF
Strike; down with them; cut the villains’ throats:
ah! whoreson caterpillars! bacon-fed knaves! they
hate us youth; down with them; fleece them.
Travellers
O, we are undone, both we and ours for ever!
FALSTAFF
Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone? No, ye
fat chuffs: I would your store were here! On,
bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men must live.
You are Grand-jurors, are ye? we’ll jure ye, ‘faith.

Here they rob them and bind them. Exeunt

I keep thinking of the ‘they hate us youth’ line at work. I am mostly remote now but when in person I spend more of my chatting time with the students who work for me than with my co-workers proper. The students are funnier, complain less, and teach me more. Before the pandemic I could round our age difference down to 10 years. Now I have to round it up to 15 – which is the good majority of their life but less than half of mine. So as I talk with them I increasingly feel lodged somewhere between Falstaff here and Steve Buscemi in the ‘how’s it going, fellow kids’ meme.

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk with candle-wasters

From Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato’s speech following the accusation against Hero (5.1.3-31). The play’s text is generally unproblematic but one line in this passage has apparently forced a lot of discussion over the centuries.

I pray thee cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel;
Nor let no comforter delight mine ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.
Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine,
And bid him speak of patience;
Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine
And let it answer every strain for strain,
As thus for thus, and such a grief for such,
In every lineament, branch, shape, and form:
If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
And sorrow; wag, cry ‘hem!’ when he should groan,
Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me,
And I of him will gather patience.
But there is no such man: for, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words:
No, no; ’tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel:
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Alternate readings include but are far from limited to:

Quarto – And sorrow, wagge, crie hem
3rd Folio – And hallow, wag, cry hem
4th Folio – And Hollow, wag, cry hem
Theobald – And Sorrow wage; cry, hem
Hanmer – And sorrow waive, cry hem
Halliwell – And sorrowing, cry ‘hem’
Johnson – And, Sorrow wag! cry; hem
Cappell – Bid sorrow, wag; cry, hem
(conjecture from an Arden note) – And, sorry wag, cry hem

The main debte here is whether ‘sorrow’ should be taken as a verb (parallel to the preceding line’s ‘stroke his beard’) or an object of the verb ‘wag’ – used under OED’s definition 7A ‘To go, depart, be off. Now colloquial’. The OED, following Cappell’s emendation, cites this passage as one of only a few instances of that sense (“And sorrow, wagge [read Bid sorrow wagge], crie hem”), and this emendation has now generally won out except where editors prefer to follow the Quarto text, as in the 2nd ed. of the Cambridge Shakespeare and, using that edition’s proposal, the new Arden I’ve given here. Those punctuate to keep ‘sorrow’ and ‘wag’ as separate verbs, relying for the latter on the second definition of the noun ‘wag’ (‘Any one ludicrously mischievous; a merry droll’ – Johnson) and supplying an implied sense of ‘play the wag’ (= pretend to be light-hearted). ‘Cry ‘hem” is taken as covering the suppressed emotion with a cough and fits either of the above readings. So we get two options:

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
And bid sorrow be off; cover his emotion with a cough when he should groan,

and

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
And inwardly sorrow; play light-hearted, cover his emotion with a cough when he should groan,

Both are workable, but I tend to favor the second since it better connects with a second element of what made this crux so difficult for so long – a now-resolved debate over the meaning of the extremely rare ‘candle-wasters’ a few lines later:

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With candle-wasters

Some 19th century editors (following one named Staunton) took the word to mean ‘revellers’ or something like ‘those who burn down candles by staying up too late [drinking]’. The line of thought seems to have been literalizing the metaphorical ‘make misfortune drunk’ into something like ‘drink enough to forget your misfortune’ and then taking ‘with candle-wasters’ as a phrase of accompaniment rather than instrument. But fortunately there is a contemporary use from Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (3.2.2 – the only other instance recorded by the OED) that snuffs the argument:

HEDON. Heart, was there ever so prosperous an invention thus
unluckily perverted and spoiled, by a whoreson book-worm, a
candle-waster?

ANA. Fough! he smells all lamp-oil with studying by candle-light.

‘Candle-waster’ can only be a dismissive term for a scholar (who wastes candles by studying all night) and ‘make misfortune drunk with candle-wasters’ must be largely parallel to the sentiment of the preceding ‘patch grief with proverbs.’ It is reminiscent of a favorite line of Melville’s from early in Moby Dick – ‘requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it.’

Sixpence in earnest of the bearward

Beatrice, from Much Ado About Nothing (2.1.~30-35):

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath
no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than
a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man,
I am not for him: therefore, I will even take sixpence in
earnest of the bearward, and lead his apes into hell.

‘Bearward’ – and its variants ‘berrord’ in the Quarto text and ‘bearherd’ in Folio 3 – are the sorts of dead words I enjoy looking into. Here the OED gives a surprising multiplicity of forms:

α. Middle English barrewarde, Middle English berewarde, Middle English–1500s barwarde, Middle English–1500s bereward, Middle English–1500s berward, Middle English–1500s berwarde, 1500s bearwarde, 1500s–1600s beareward, 1600s– bearward.

β. 1500s–1600s bearard, 1600s bearerd, 1600s berard, 1600s berod, 1600s berrord, 1800s berrod (English regional).

and takes Folio 3’s ‘bearherd’ as a later synonym with a different second root element (out of curiosity I checked ‘shepherd’ and found that it had the same change in reverse in the early 17th century – breaking off into a soon-defunct ‘sheepward’).

The definition of bearward is given as:

In Britain: a person who takes care of bears, bulls, apes, or other animals, training and managing them for displays of public entertainment, such as baiting and dancing. Now historical.

The expansion to animals beyond bears feels a bit odd at first and might seem a Shakespearean innovation if there weren’t an example from 1551 ( in John Bale’s The first two parts of the Actes, or vnchast examples of the Englysh votaryes) that confirms the earlier broader application:

They played with those worldly rulers..as the bearwardes ded with their apes and their beares.

But even with its wider scope, ‘bearward’ didn’t displace more the particular terms. For apes alone I quickly found ‘ape-bearer’, ‘ape-keeper’, ‘ape-leader’, and (predictably) ‘ape-ward’. The first of these is used by Shakespeare twenty years later in A Winters Tale (4.3.94 – “I know this man well, he hath bene since an Ape-bearer.”) and, except for ‘ape-ward’ (with a single citation from Piers Plowman in 1362), the rest show continued life into the 17th century.

So why bearward here instead of an ape-word? Because it – along with variants ‘berrord’ and ‘bearherd’ – would have been a near homophone for ‘beard’ that Beatrice uses twice at the start of the quoted lines and the bard can’t turn down a sound similarity, especially when it so deftly smooths the transition to a proverb that I’ll make a post about shortly.

The transitive property – semblance of my soul

Portia, from The Merchant of Venice (3.4.10-23). If Antonio = Bassanio and Bassanio = Portia then Antonio = Portia. I wish I’d made notes on or could remember other instances of this logic in Shakespeare. My casual sense is that it’s pretty rare and usually limited to abstract qualities so extending it to people might be a unique use – though maybe less bold a reach if you take ‘soul’ as essentially an abstract.

I never did repent for doing good,
Nor shall not now: for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners and of spirit;
Which makes me think that this Antonio,
Being the bosom lover of my lord,
Must needs be like my lord. If it be so,
How little is the cost I have bestow’d
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish misery!
This comes too near the praising of myself;
Therefore no more of it:

Like Shakespeare says, some damn thing about sticking a mere pin in through the armor, and goodbye king

The line is from Phillip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:

What we have here, he realized, is not an invasion of Earth by Proxmen, beings from another system. Not an invasion by the legions of a pseudo human race. No. It’s Palmer Eldritch who’s everywhere, growing and growing like a mad weed. Is there a point where he’ll burst, grow too much? All the manifestations of Eldritch, all over Terra and Luna and Mars, Palmer puffing up and bursting–pop, pop, POP! Like Shakespeare says, some damn thing about sticking a mere pin in through the armor, and goodbye king.

The Shakespeare passage referenced is one of Richard’s more famous speeches in Richard II (3.2):

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do

Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1.2):

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s
cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o’er a cold decree – such a hare is madness the
youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the
cripple.

Related to I see the better … Ovid, Petrarch, and Foscolo and I know what’s right, but I don’t do it.

A part to tear a cat in

From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.2):

QUINCE
You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
BOTTOM
What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
QUINCE
A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.
BOTTOM
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
more condoling.

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.