Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why Horns?

In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare gets a lot of mileage out of horns: Frank Ford imagines them popping out of his forehead; Sir John Falstaff winds up wearing literal horns at play's end when dressed up as Herne the Hunter. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance times, cuckolds – men whose wives were unfaithful – were imagined as wearing horns. (Horns might also be perceived on the brows of wittols, men who accepted their wives’ infidelity.)

You might recall all the "horn" jokes in Much Ado about Nothing and, more seriously, Othello’s bitter humor about a pain in his forehead as his jealousy increases. It’s a fair question (and a member of the cast has sensibly raised it) to ask why horns came to symbolize cuckoldry. It’s also a question that doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer.


In fact, scholar Claire McEachern (who edited the Pelican Shakespeare Henry V that Flatwater used) published an essay as recently as December 2008 that asks, "Why Do Cuckolds Have Horns?" (it’s in the Huntington Library Quarterly). McEachern reviews a wide range of explanations and offers some new ones. Here’s a selection:


–The horns may reflect "the practices of the Greek emperor Andronicus, who was known to place horns on the houses of his [erotic] conquests in order to signify his grant of compensatory hunting privileges to their husbands" (615).


–During the Renaissance, perhaps in imitation of Andronicus, members of a community would nail "horns to the door of a suspected cuckold," both alerting him to their suspicions and casting scorn on his ignorance of the situation (615).


–Psychologically speaking, the horns constitute a kind of cultural displacement "in which the horniness of the cuckolder ends up manifesting itself on the brow of the insufficiently masculine cuckoldee" (610). This is a different kind of compensation, since "Virile animals, such as bulls, stags, and the traditionally lecherous goat have horns" (610; McEachern here quotes from Coppelia Kahn’s book Man’s Estate).


Many of these ideas are represented visually in a woodcut that accompanied a 17th-century ballad entitled "The Married Man’s Miserie." The illustration (seen above) depicts a wandering wife dancing with the devil, a clueless husband with horns just beginning to sprout, horns nailed to their house, and a concerned (and/or nosy) neighbor sounding the alarm with the help of a, yes, horn.


The Flatwater Shakespeare Company presents The Merry Wives of Windsor in the open-air Swan Theatre at Wyuka Cemetery and Park, 3600 O Street in Lincoln, beginning Thurs., June 4, at 7:30 p.m. Performances continue Fri.-Sun., June 5-7; and Thurs.-Sun., June 11-14 and 18-21. All show times are 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students. Group rates are also available.


Call 484-7640 for reservations.

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