Shall We Go and Kill Us Venison?
17 March 2022
By Emily Naish
By Emily Naish
Deer hunting is a restricted activity in England. It is not completely illegal to kill deer (or other wild animals), but there are various legislations that dictate when, where, and how they can be hunted. This even covers ‘welfare’ to protect animals from ‘deliberate acts of cruelty’: a hunter can legally shoot a deer during open season, but cannot ‘stab’ or ‘impale’ a wild mammal in a way that causes ‘unnecessary suffering’. The legislation around hunting attempts to straddle the perceived rights of both humans (to hunt) and animals (to not suffer) in a way that puts the animals in limbo: they are protected from suffering, yet their suffering is also enabled by the law.
Historical hunting laws tell a similar story of liberty to hunt colliding with some level of protection: it was legal for the king (and later landowners) to hunt deer, but not for his subjects. As the legal definition of a ‘forest’ necessitates the presence of deer, John Manwood’s Brefe Collection of the Lawes of the Forest (1592) provides an excellent source for the history of hunting legislation. The laws, Manwood states, predate the Danish king ‘Canutus’ (or Cnut, 1016-1035).
Before Cnut’s reign, it was the king’s ‘right and privilege’ that all ‘wilde beastes, byrds, & such like, in whose lands or woods soever they were found’ were his (presumably for hunting). Yet, as Manwood explains, Cnut changed the law so that ‘every free man may take his own Vert & Venerie [venison] or hunting that he can gett upon his owne ground, or in his owne feelds, being out of my Chase [hunting ground]’. Hunting, therefore, was still restricted to those with ‘his owne ground’, but the king no longer had ‘right and privilege’ to every wild animal in all ‘lands or woods’.
Moving into the sixteenth century, Manwood describes the contemporary roles of foresters and the oaths under which they acted. Any ‘man […] being of the ages of xii. yeres and upwards’ who lived in the forest ‘ought […] to be sworne to be trewe unto the Queenes Majesties game of the forest’. These oaths were required of all ‘the Inhabitantes and dwellers within the forestes’; however, ‘much more’ than the common inhabitants, oaths were required of ‘those that are officers of the forest […] which have charge of her Majesties game’ (namely the foresters).
These additional oaths specified that any injured deer, and any instances of broken law, must be reported by the foresters. And – perhaps most importantly, but also least specifically – ‘shalbe of good behauior your selfe towardes his Maiesties wild beasts’. Like today’s laws, the deer are protected to some degree, although only from the illegal hunter.
As You Like It’s weeping venison
Jacques is the aspiring fool in William Shakespeare’s comic As You Like It (?1599). His most famous speech (‘All the world’s a stage’) is often quoted with great sincerity, but it is undermined within the play as the ageing Adam enters immediately after the last line, with teeth, eyes, taste, and ‘everything’. At the close of the play, all the characters return from their exile in the Forest of Arden to civil society, except for Jacques. Instead, Jacques takes up permanent residence in the woodland as a hermit. He has various complaints throughout the play, and the first of these is a complaint about deer hunting.
The complaint is heralded with a short speech by Duke Senior: the exiled yet rightful duke, usurped by his brother. He asks his men, ‘Come, shall we go and kill us venison?’ According to the law (as outlined above) the duke’s plan to hunt is a potentially illegal act. Deer in the forest are for the monarch (or the duke) to hunt; however, Duke Senior is currently in exile and therefore has lost the right to do so. Yet there is another problem: as the duke describes the act of hunting, he states that it
irks [him] the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers [citizens] of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with forked heads
Have their round haunches gored.
The innocence of the deer is asserted by ‘poor dappled fools’, and alongside this plea of innocence, the violence of the act of hunting is laid bare by the word ‘gored’. There is also a point of connection drawn between the duke and the deer when he asserts their right to reside in the ‘desert city’, namely the Forest of Arden: both have been wronged in their own homes. The problem with hunting, by the duke’s account, is not the legal grey area of an exiled ruler killing deer, rather the goring of the innocent.
This leads to Jacques’s own complaint about hunting deer, relayed by one of the duke’s men. It begins from a legal perspective:
The melancholy Jaques grieves at that,
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you.
When the duke hunts, Jacques suggests, he becomes an even more problematic figure than his banishing brother. Yet this is not the end of his complaint. Jacques has found a slain deer and, as with the duke, his melancholic reaction is not merely grief about broken laws:
Today my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him as he lay along
Under an oak, whose antic root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood,
To the which place a poor sequester’d stag,
That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt,
Did come to languish, and indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heaved forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting, and the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase; and thus the hairy fool
Much marked of [watched by] the melancholy Jaques,
Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears.
There is the gesture towards the illegality of the act in describing the injured deer as ‘sequester’d’ or stolen. But the pain caused to the animal overtakes the speech, lessening the significance of the law in judging the killing. Indeed, it is not only human discomfort that is given a voice: the deer also sorrows. He groans (as injured animals do), but, more pertinently, he also cries ‘big round tears’ that flow down his ‘innocent nose’.
Through the shedding of tears, an exclusively human act, the deer is nearly anthropomorphised, suggesting his suffering is no less than that of a person. And later, like the duke, Jaques seem to form a cross-species bond with the deer as he too sheds tears over the corpse.
Is Jacques’s melancholy at the deer’s death meant to be taken seriously by the audience, or are we meant to laugh at the hyperbole? Whilst the duke does mention some unease at the idea of hunting, he certainly does not take Jacques too seriously: on hearing that his men left him ‘weeping and commenting / On the sobbing deer’, the duke asks to be taken to Jacques, because ‘I love to cope [argue with] him in these sullen fits’.
And, when we do finally meet Jacques a few scenes later, he is still melancholic, but no longer on account of the injured deer. Yet this complaint is unusual in not being refuted (cf. ‘All the world’s a stage’). In fact, it is upheld by Duke Senior’s earlier comments. The issue of deer hunting appears to hold important emotional resonance within the world of As You Like It.
This is not to suggest the play is radically vegetarian: the duke is never seen shooting deer as it seemed he might, but he does not seem uncomfortable with eating the animal’s meat. The menu is not detailed, but it does not seem unreasonable to imagine the duke and his men are feasting on venison in Act II Scene 7, only a few scenes after this passage. But the descriptions of slain deer are poignant, framing the death as a tragic crime. With the introduction of the emotive into the complaint, even if we can reconcile hunting as legal for the duke, we cannot understand it as moral.
Returning to the present day, our own laws seem murkier than those of the sixteenth century. The introduction of the issue of welfare raises a crucial question: at what point does a death become deliberately cruel, and thus illegal? There are specific verbs prohibited (‘kick, beat, stab, impale, burn, crush, stone, drag, asphyiate (sic) or drown’), but how are these more deliberately cruel than the ‘goring’ of a gun? And perhaps this, as it was through the eyes of Jaques, is the greatest crime of all:
Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assigned and native dwelling-place."
The body of the deer becomes a testament to this: even the legally slain deer weeps.