Bruce Thomas Boehrer


On his book Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Cover Interview of June 27, 2010

The wide angle

The treatment of beasts in Renaissance literature tells us something about their evolving place in European culture more generally.  It also tells us how early modern society understood the difference between human beings and other beings.

By Shakespeare’s day, writers are well used to giving reason and speech and consciousness—what we call character—to nonhuman animals.  Sentient beasts appear in travelogues, bestiaries, tales of the supernatural, allegorical poetry, and more.  Moral histories castigate human beings for sinking to the level of beasts, and natural histories credit nonhuman beings with self-awareness, reason, and even speech.

But from the mid-1500s on, these ways of depicting nonhuman life grow more and more subject to ridicule.  Cervantes and Shakespeare associate sentient animals with worn-out styles of writing and thinking.  Rabelais uses them to lampoon the pope.  And by the mid-1600s, Descartes defines human consciousness in a way that denies anything similar to other animals.

In essence, this new understanding of the human/animal divide requires writers to depict human beings in a new way, as the privileged vessels of self-awareness.  As a result, the Cartesian definition of the human leads to a new emphasis on inwardness and personality in the depiction of literary character.

As inner life becomes a uniquely human attribute, a whole set of literary forms dealing with animal characters—beast-fable, beast-epic, chivalric romance—disappears from the literary mainstream, replaced by new genres built to display human subjectivity: the novel preeminently, but also lyric poetry and the comedy of manners.

You could even put it this way: the construction of character became central to literature because it had also become central to the philosophy of species difference.