When Shakespeare Killed a Calf (2006)

According to John Aubrey, the dramatist’s father “was a butcher & I have been told heretofore by some of his neighbors, that when he killed a Calfe he would do it in a high style, and make a speech.” The conjecture that John Shakespeare was a butcher has been discounted. That leaves us with the killing of the calf. 

In 1836, Canon Raines recalled the old stage routine of Killing the Calf and queried, “Was this the calf that Shakespeare killed?” Killing the Calf was a pseudo-ventriloquial comedy turn for the company clown. At a predetermined moment (or in an emergency), the curtains parted and a dummy calf’s head was pushed through. The clown then indulged in some banter with the “calf,” “throwing” his voice for the calf’s responses. When the calf became too glib, the clown produced a wooden sword and severed the head, the head falling to the floor.[i]

The future dramatist undoubtedly witnessed this scene on more than one occasion. It was so indelibly imprinted in his mind that years later he committed it to paper in Hamlet.

 Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar: I was kill’d i’ the Captial; Brutus kill’d me. Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.

Like that musical genius Mozart, who was entertaining potentates at age 5, the urge to create drama may have come at an early age. And one learns by imitation. It may be fantasy to imagine that young William badgered his mother until she finally gave in and made him a calf’s head cut from cloth and stuffed. Around the evening fire, the youth’s parents, brothers and sisters endured the Killing of the Calf in William’s original and ever more elaborate version— ad nauseum. The Shakespeare’s relatives, neighbors, and whoever stopped by to visit were also treated to the calf’s head.

Continuing the fantasy, William’s reputation for Killing the Calf, his favorite backstage prank, was known throughout the London theatre community. Now the fantasy begins to look like reality. In his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon, Thomas Nashe angrily cites a rival player-poet among “the alchemists of eloquence, who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to outbrave better pens with the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse; indeed it may be the ingrafted overflow of some killcow conceit.” To whom but Shakespeare, the player-poet outbraving the University wits, could Nashe be referring? Otherwise, how can one make any sense of his use of the term “killcow”?

[i] Alan Keen and Roger Lubbock, The Annotator (1954), 77-8. While The Annotator is a useful book—I believe it provided much information for E. A. J. Honigmann’s Shakespeare ‘the lost years’—I agree with Honigmann (though likely on different grounds), that contrary to the main thesis of The Annotator, Shakespeare is not the author of the marginalia in the Newport copy of Halle’s Chronicle.