Beware the Category: Human

Robert McKay

I am a scholar of literature produced from the last third of the 20thcentury to the present. This is an era marked by world-changing discoveries about nonhuman animals’ intelligence, their rich capacities for feeling and embodied experience, their complex emotional and social lives, and the rights and human duties that many people recognise to follow from these truths. This period of new knowledge can be understood to put into profound question the tendency towards anthropocentrism that has characterised modern Western societies. 

Anthropocentrism means putting humans at the centre of everything. Anthropocentric attitudes take what are regarded (not, by any means, with proper justification) as quintessentially human ways of life as the norms by which the world is understood. What humans say goes. 

Another characteristic anthropocentric attitude is to presume that even if they are like other animals, humans remain fundamentally different from them: more different from any nonhuman animal than any such animal is from another one. 

A lot of things are offered as the fundamental ground for this human exceptionalism, capacities humans supposedly “have” that animals don’t: altruism; a sense of self, time, generosity, or humour; transmissive culture, ritual and performance; ethics, politics, and law; the understanding that others have thoughts about us; reason. But often it eventually comes down to one thing that is said to underpin all the rest: language. 

When this idea of absolute difference, human exceptionalism, bleeds into the presumption that humans are better than other animals, you have the basis of what’s called speciesism: believing that it is right and just to treat different species with inequality. Humans might be animals, but they are certainly aren’t beasts.

If anthropocentrism is indeed coming into question, then relations between “the human” and all other animals should be at a crucial juncture. Can we imagine a way beyond anthropocentrism, as current knowledge about animals and recognition of the injustice of elitist, self-centred thinking suggest we must? Fundamentally it is this project of thought that has underwritten a lot of work in the academy over the last twenty years or so that falls under the rubric of “animal studies”, the field in which I work.

What does the contemporary literature that I study have to do with this? Literary writers are, I suppose, the people who most fully put that medium to work, language, that is supposed once and for all to distinguish the human. And I’ve spent my entire working life thinking about what it means for them to tell stories about animals and to use animals to tell stories. But I have always been fascinated by something a bit more specific: not quite stories about animals, but works that take it upon themselves to tell stories about animal life as a way of explaining the human; stories that pontificate about animals, about what they are and what they are not, about what they can do and what they can’t. I call these stories our “animal corpus”: the catalogue of texts that write animals as just bodies, lacking language, reason, ethics, sociable community or whatever. 

I’m fascinated by them because such stories—in their very factitiousness—can reveal one of the great paradoxes of anthropocentric human exceptionalism: that it’s impossible without animals. We can only know we are human by telling stories about how animals are different from “us”, and we’re making them up.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve delighted in being cast as William Baldwin in Beware the Cat. Because the (initially) pompous and self-confident “author” of the work (characteristics not relevant to the casting, I trust) frames the tale for us, and sets the argument of the piece in motion by avowing some core truths that the humanist holds to be self-evident. Plays, he insists, should not feature animals because it is “not comical to make speechless things to speak, or brutish things to common reasonably”. Animals do not have language, they do not have reason, and so they do not form a civic community; and any art is to be discouraged that pretends even for a moment that they do. What follows in Beware the Cat, by contrast, is a wonderful debunking of that hubristic expression of human pride in difference from animals. So let me just highlight just two key moments in the text and performance that resonate for me with ideas and innovations that are at work in animal studies. 

The first is the way that, by excessively documenting the mechanics of scientific inquiry, Baldwin fictionalises the way that “truths” about animals are the product of humans’ ways of making meaning about them. In the edifice of human exceptionalism—centuries and millennia in the making—human self-knowledge is bound up inextricably with projecting inquiry outwards to discover an animal object that is supposedly out there, existing independent of that project. But Beware the Cat shows us the obsessiveness of humans looking at animals, of needing to know what they are thinking, of chasing and taking hold of them in order to do so, of doing violence to some animals so as to find out something about other ones. 

Baldwin details with great and tangible reality the materiality of the process of gaining such knowledge: for Master Streamer, philosophical science as animal ethology is nothing like the dispassionate pursuit of truth by an observer, the ideal that underpins empirical science’s self-presentation in the 21stcentury. “Caught with such a desire” to know what the cats said that he cannot sleep at all, it’s an endeavour in which he is perilously and almost nightmarishly invested. It is reliant on the specific technologies and animal bodies at hand, it is done under the prurient gaze of others and with them in mind: and all of these aspects frame what he is able to know and say about animals.

When he hears the cats, then, we’re left wondering: would he have heard something different, or nothing at all, if hadn’t found and gutted a hedgehog? if the kite that attacked him had gotten the fox he’d killed for his experiment? if the ingredients or shape of the magical-hearing pillows he makes had been different? What if he had listened to different cats from the ones on this printing house roof? As Vinciane Despret puts it in the title of her own book debunking human exceptionalism in animal science, Baldwin’s text certainly gives us to ask: what would animals say if we asked the right questions?

A second interesting moment is when we view Mouseslayer’s story itself. Here, Baldwin fictionalises the cat not as a mirror to the human, but as a critical viewer of the human. In Beware the Cat, cats look at humans, and the world of cats looks at the world of humans: as performers and viewers, we are in turn asked to judge ourselves in the eyes of the cat, the cat Mouseslayer: to be responsible not for her, but before her. 

In perhaps the most famous essay in the field of animal studies (certainly it is an endlessly fascinating one) the philosopher Jacques Derrida says this about the corpus of ideas in which animals are said to lack this, that or the other: “It is as if the men representing this configuration had seen without being seen, seen the animal without being seen by it; without being seen seen by it”.

The experience of Beware the Cat is indeed like seeing the anthropocentric category of humanity being seen by an animal. It is not quite that the cat court offers a parody of human law and order, showing us by satire that human claims to authority, self-rule and the ability to “common reasonably” are quite deluded. Animals are often pressed into that kind of literary service (in which animals’ irrationality is confirmed by showing humans’ fundamental similarity to it). 

Instead, the point is that feline “reasonableness” is proved in the very act of it revealing human unreasonableness (sexual duplicity, religious idolatry, ecclesiastical debasement etc.). This, we discover, is a peculiarly human unreasonableness not unlike the anthropocentric prejudice against animals’ intelligence—the unreasoned, unevidenced, article of faith in human exceptionalism—with which the text begins but which it counsels us eventually to renounce.

Robert McKay is Co-Director of the Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre (ShARC)

Beware the Cat at the RSC

In July we had the privilege of bringing the new stage adaptation of Beware the Cat to the RSC’s The Other Place. With the help of an amazing RSC team, we were able to share Baldwin’s story with a sold-out audience.

Here is a sneak peak of Hugo Glendinning’s wonderful photos.

Hugo has also made a new film of the performance. If you are interested in arranging a screening at your university or library, please contact Rachel Stenner at
rachel.stenner@sussex.ac.uk.

Putting the Cat on its feet: Baldwin’s ‘Beware the Cat’ and the process of stage adaptation

by Frances Babbage

William Baldwin’s obscure sixteenth-century novel Beware the Cat is an improbable and distinctly challenging source for a dramatic adaptation. While the central storyline sounds rather promising – a curious scholar makes a potion that lets him understand the ‘secret language’ of cats! – at the level of accessibility, Baldwin is a very long way from Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis or Rudyard Kipling. 

Encouraged by academic colleagues who know much more about early literature and history than I do, I approached Baldwin’s book eager to discover for myself what I hoped would prove to be a hidden gem. Beware the Cat was published more than 400 years ago, so it is not surprising to find multiple layers of strangeness the reader has to find their way through, but if I’m honest, I did not expect the process to be quite the struggle that it turned out to be. 

Approximately the first third of the book consists of apparently learned men arguing amongst themselves, with the aid of rambling anecdotes that each one seems to think will lend weight to his position. There’s a Chinese box structure at work in the novel from the beginning: these scholars don’t just talk and tell (a lot of) stories, but tell stories about stories, so their wrangling debates end up folding in accounts of remembered conversations and ever taller tales. 

The middle part of the book deals with the creation of the magic medicine. Here, there is just one narrative line to focus on, but even this segment tests patience (well, it did for me) since it is effectively a multi-paged list of ingredients – the majority of which must be caught and killed – plus a laboriously precise account of how each is prepared. Then it’s as if you’re trapped in a room with a garrulous hypochondriac as the scholar-alchemist Master Streamer describes his ensuing symptoms upon taking the potion, hour by monitored hour. 

The final third of the novel brings Streamer – at last! – up onto the roof where he is able to eavesdrop on the cats’ conversations. And they do make for a lively gathering: perhaps infected by the pedantic tone of the novel, I looked up the collective noun for cats and am happy to find amongst other terms a clutter, a cluster, a pounce, a glaring, a nuisance, a destruction of cats! There’s no lack of action in this section, although once again that action is essentially found in what the cats say, rather than what they do: in their storytelling and arguing they are as longwinded as the scholars (but definitely a lot ruder). And at the end of the novel, Baldwin doesn’t properly tie up his plot – admittedly it’s hard to see how he could, given its steadily more surreal turn – but instead offers something perilously close to the get-out of ‘I woke up and it had all been a dream’.


My summary of what happens in Beware the Cat, a little tetchy as it is, probably does still signal that there is a lively, bold, and funny story in here, even if, to my mind, it had not quite wrestled itself out. The difficulty in reading wasn’t just down to the convoluted and protracted telling, competing narrators, and lack of action taking place in the here and now: on top of all of that, the author himself interrupts his own novel continuously to add explanatory notes and observations in the margins (whether these are serious or satirical is not always clear). But of course, all the qualities I describe are exactly what makes academics so enthusiastic about Beware the Cat: there’s certainly plenty to get your scholarly teeth and claws into.

Studying Baldwin’s novel is one thing, but making it into something listenable and watchable for a live audience is a different matter entirely. When Rachel Stenner, Terry O’Connor and I first started working on the project, we quickly saw the need to be ruthless. There was only so long we could let ourselves revel in Baldwin’s quirkiness and infinite verbosity, which we certainly did do when we read the whole thing aloud between us – not least as an attempt to understand it – over the course of a day. Eventually, we divided the book crudely in three and each applied our individual axe to it: and even those cuts, which aimed to reduce the size of the beast by two thirds, turned out not to be bold enough when we began testing our version in the mouths of the actors. 

But while we cut and cut again, paring out sections of the original every bit as fussily as Streamer dissects or flays his unlucky ‘ingredients’, we were also adding and building as well. We took the decision to make our adaptation very consciously a theatrical reading: this was not because we’d tried and failed to dramatise the story (we didn’t), or because we disliked the idea of pretending to be cats (although we did). It was rather that, for everyone involved in the project, the sheer ‘bookishness’ of the book is one of its most striking qualities: it seemed impossible to separate the story from the manner of its telling. And perhaps perversely, some of the driest qualities of the original were things we all wanted to keep. In our adaptation, Baldwin’s pedantic, opinionated marginalia were turned into a physical (as well as verbal) element in the performance, a series of signs held up by the actor without explanation: the audience, like the reader, have to judge for themselves the status of these insertions and how to negotiate their placing alongside the central text.

However, the most striking addition our stage version brings to the novel must be Penny McCarthy’s drawings, which the actors endlessly sift and display on the projection screen throughout. Responding to Baldwin’s novel and our work in rehearsals on the cut-down text, McCarthy produced several batches of images. At first, she simply drew cats: of all kinds, in all moods, clustered, paired and single. She moved on to sketch other animals, objects, forests, skies, buildings, windows and chambers (as well as more cats). While some of these drawings illustrate a specific moment detailed in the dialogue – a cat with its paws stuck in nutshell ‘shoes’, for example – the majority of images tumble out in parallel with the unfolding stories, establishing a distinct pictorial narrative of their own. 

Speaking personally, as someone who worked on the adaptation and also performs in it, those slightly dislocated juxtapositions of word and image are probably the elements I enjoy the most. While we have become much more familiar with the novel through the adaptation process – and aim to bring it equally close to our audience – it is inevitable that a chasm still separates us from Baldwin’s world. By reading our version of the novel rather than acting it out, we are acknowledging our distance from it. And in a similar way, when McCarthy’s cats skitter across the screen not quite at the ‘right’ moment, I feel that I almost understand what they are saying: at least, up to the moment when they abruptly slip away.


Reading with Pictures

by Penny McCarthy

I am an artist whose recent research examines the nature of artistic provenance in relation to the archive and makes extensive use of intricate pencil drawings, often focusing on the visual aspects of books and texts. For me, drawing functions as a mimetic practice: I make close copies from various sources such as handwritten first drafts by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, and also from the printed paperback pages of my own library. I use drawing as a form of close reading that allows me to spend time with a text to harness imaginative insights through the creative and critical capacities that are invoked in the making of work. Much of my work has sought to take the experience of solitary reading or researching in a library and enfold that experience into a pictorial space.

How can knowledge and feeling from the past be activated again in our present? Literal re-visioning of cultural artefacts has the potential to reveal afresh how we describe ourselves and hence reframe how we order our experience to enable discourse across restrictions of language and specialism.  Working collaboratively on the performance of Beware the Cat felt like a chance to think about my research in a new way through a practical enquiry that would apply a range of cross-disciplinary methods. I wanted to build a new body of work in a dialogue with other researchers and the theatre space seemed ideally suited to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

William Baldwin’s  Beware the Cat is brilliantly visual. An arresting aspect of the book is its use of decorative borders, woodcuts and quaint marginalia. What strikes me most about the text is the way that it evokes the author’s mind, and what astonishes and delights him is often a sensory experience of people encountered and things seen. The book is more like a series of fleeting simultaneous impressions than a linear narrative and, in this sense, it lends itself to pictorial interpretation. 

Central to the collaboration was the development of the work in the theatre space. I might, I suppose, have produced a series of illustrations in my studio and handed them over to illustrate the text. But I was curious to follow  Beware the Cat through the close reading and study of the text during performance, rather than as a historical treatise. In truth, my approach has been fairly irreverent: I don’t really care about the facts of Baldwin’s life or a synoptic reading of his text; it’s the vitality of the work that I’m interested in.

All of the drawings are made very quickly. I use brush and black ink on paper in order to mirror the materiality of the print process used by Baldwin. There is a vast cultural archive of animal illustration and I wanted to make a connection with this history as well as with animals in popular iconography. My Beware the Cat drawings have echoes of the work of artists that have famously illustrated animals such as Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Bewick. I also wanted to quote from the history of animal imagery in children’s books and comic illustrations by John Tenniel, Wally Wood and Beatrix Potter. The hallucinatory cats of Louis Wain’s imagination were a huge influence on my images of the trippiest passages in the story. 

I am interested in the ways in which drawing can articulate an understanding of the world proposed by fiction, reflecting and collapsing the space between textual description and imagination. Most of my drawings are made in direct response to watching the performers interact with a section or line of the text. Each of the performers was given a stack of drawings and invited to assign them to the narrative. It was fascinating to watch the ways in which each of them improvised by using the images to illuminate their reading. 

As the story is read, the performer selects a corresponding image and places it directly onto a visualizer and projects it onto a screen. The material simplicity of this act of selection in which we see hands move across the screen embodies and reveals something of the experience of reading from a book, managing to convey not just the imagined moment in the narrative but also the way reading hits the senses, the precise emotional shading and personal import of each of these moments. We see the text through their eyes. 

So far every performative iteration of the text has prompted a different use of images to elucidate its ideas. Watching the performance, you note the presence of the images, acknowledging the way that they add to the text’s atmosphere, but their lack of fixity and the fluid nature of the live reading mean that our understanding of the text is identified with each singular performance. In this sense, the exact way that the images and text relate to each other remains open. The loveliest moments often happened when someone would have to use an image that didn’t quite fit the story, such as a drawing of a single chair followed by a tea cup used to illustrate a description of a conversation. The collapse of the conventional status of the image’s interpretive function feels like a gift, one that simultaneously demystifies and enchants the narrative. I saw an early rehearsal that was dominated by images of weather and night skies, and for a while in rehearsals each mention of magic or superstition prompted the use of images of shadow puppets. 

This model is unusual as texts typically work with embedded images – I can’t actually think of another example of this fluidity of interpretation. The performative context continues to playfully acknowledge the gaps of understanding and questions in our contemporary understanding of a historic work.  It is this response to the inevitably partial, shifting understanding of a fictional world so very different to our own and the space it opens for readers and audience to inhabit, that serves as a prompt for deeper thought and stimulus for current concerns. 

Taking my cue from these live readings, I have continued to respond by making new images. It’s something of a formal experiment that continues to explore the relations between text and image. The performance of an hour’s duration is currently paralleled by an evolving sequence of around a hundred images. Yet  Beware the Cat is an extraordinarily capacious text that holds within it a seemingly limitless body of imagery and I have a sense that we have not yet begun to exhaust the limits of its story-telling potential. It seems to me that whenever I hand over a new set of images to the performers, Baldwin’s story is dismantled again, and then reassembled in performance. The images are a way of opening up the text, serving as a license to enjoy the work without the cultural and critical baggage it might carry. They are also original work – on the crossing of generic boundaries, on creative dialogue and interpretation and also my own close reading of  Beware the Cat. What  Beware the Cat gives us is a model of approachable critical research. It’s great fun and a fantastic introduction to a work that – so far – few people know about.

A brief history of literary cats

by Charlotte Potter

In Beware the Cat, William Baldwin asks the provocative question of whether cats can talk and reason. But he wasn’t alone in wondering this. For centuries, writers have been inspired by the mysterious nature of cats, and English literature is populated by many eloquent, maverick, felines. Here are five of the most intriguing.

Julian of Norwich’s cat , c. 1390 – 1416

St Thomas, Norwich
© Simon Knott,  
norfolkchurches.co.uk

Julian of Norwich was a medieval woman who lived as an anchorite for over twenty years, writing her book, Revelations of Divine Love. As an anchorite she lived in an enclosed cell attached to a church. Cut off from the world, she was able to study, meditate and pray. However, she was not completely alone: she was allowed to keep a cat to deal with mice and rats! Cat lovers may not be so surprised to learn that some of the most profound and transcendent theological writing in English was composed whilst snuggled up with a cat.

Julian is frequently depicted with her cat, as in this stained-glass window.

Christopher Smart’s cat, Jeoffrey, 1757-63

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.”


Christopher Smart was a prolific English poet who was confined to an insane asylum for six years by his father-in-law. Unlike Julian of Norwich, Smart’s isolation was not a choice, yet he also found comfort and solace in the company of his cat. The long religious poem, Jubilate Agno, which was written during his confinement, includes a famous section on his beloved cat, Jeoffrey. Smart ponders on his cat’s manners and virtues, and his relationship with God. His overall aim was to give a “voice” to nature, and he felt it was the role of the poet to help nature and animals express their devotion to God.

The Cheshire Cat, 1865

“I didn’t know that Cheshire cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.”
Illustration by John Tenniel, 1865

With his huge grin which lingers after he vanishes, and his riddling philosophising, the Cheshire Cat is one of the most loved characters in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although Alice encounters many talkative animals down the rabbit hole, the Cheshire Cat is arguably the wisest and most enigmatic.

However, the Cheshire Cat predates Carroll’s novel, with references appearing from the 18th century onwards. His origins are obscure; perhaps he was named after a carved stone cat which appears on a Cheshire church, or a badly painted pub sign in which the “Red Lion” looked more like a toothy feline? Or maybe the first Cheshire Cat was actually inspired by a tradition of making Cheshire cheese in the form of a grinning cat!

T. S. Eliot’s Practical Cats, 1939

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

Originally written for his grandchildren, T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems about cats were published in 1939. In addition to telling the stories of the mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, the mysterious Macavity, and the magical Mr Mistoffelees, the poems also explore the secretive world of Jellicle cats, which humans are oblivious to. In ‘The Naming of Cats’, Eliot explains that Jellicle cats have multiple identities, epitomised by their various names: their everyday, family name; their ‘peculiar’ Jellicle name; and ‘the name that no human research can discover — / But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.’

You can hear T. S. Eliot reading ‘The Naming of Cats’ here.

Professor McGonnagall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997

Professor McGonagall demonstrates her animagus ability to transform into a cat during a Transfiguration lesson.

Cats have long been associated with witchcraft, and the image of the witch on her broomstick, accompanied by a black cat, is ubiquitous. In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches call for Grimalkin, a cat who also appears prominently in Beware the Cat.

In the wizarding world of the Harry Potter novels, cats are everywhere. Many characters keep cats for pets, such as Hermione’s temperamental Crookshanks and Filch’s creeping Mrs Norris. But the most surprising cat is the Transfiguration teacher, Professor McGonagall. She is an animagus, meaning that she can transform into a cat at will, a skill which is highly useful for surreptitiously discovering information. As one of the cleverest characters in the series, Professor McGonagall continues the tradition, seen in Baldwin’s novel as well as all the pets and characters explored above, of the intelligence and mystery of cats.