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Life Lessons Taught by Shakespeare Through the Love of Horses

“The lady doth protest too much methinks.” A life lesson from Hamlet that I realize has nothing whatsoever to do with horses. But it’s a brilliant way to ascertain if someone is trying to hide how they truly feel about something. It’s also one of my favourite expressions, though I find few occasions to use it. 

It crossed my mind when delving into that descriptive paragraph I wrote about last week from Taming of the Shrew that since Shakespeare spun out quotable lines like Rumpelstiltskin spun out gold, he must have written some great one-liners about horses. He did live in a time when horses were more a necessity than a luxury. 


Nothing says necessity more than the line, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” 

Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4.

These sorts of things fascinate me. Imagine this line being written 500 years ago and people (of a certain age) still say it today, though they probably shorten it to “My kingdom for a horse.” 

The take away of this line is… a king willing to give up his kingdom for a horse would suggest 1) horses are great and 2) often the little things in life, like horses, are more important than the big things, such as kingdoms. I couldn’t agree more.


“Anger is like

A full hot horse, who being allowed his way,

Self-mettle tires him”

Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 1

Well, I think we all know how hot horses act and they do eventually tire, but generally long after we do. 

If we let a hot horse have their way they will run, buck, leap, balk… until tired, and will more than likely hurt themselves in the process. Keep your anger, like that of a hot horse, reined in, so you don’t say something you regret.


“I had rather have my horse to my mistress.”

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 7.

I think there is a meme out there somewhere stating this fact, only today it’s the husband that gets the boot not the horse. 


“He doth nothing but talk of his horse.”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2.

Well, well, well, some things never change. 


“He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.”

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6

So even back in Shakespeare’s day, the health of a horse and the love of a man were as trustworthy as a “tame” wolf? Tremendous. 

What we can trust, however, is that a horse’s preferred time to fall ill or acquire a serious injury is the Friday night of a long weekend.


“My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.”

Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3.

A woman named Maria is planning on deceiving a man called Malvolio, and her statement “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour,” is her cryptic way of saying, “That is the plan.”  

It’s believed the expression a horse of a different colour is derived from the above, however, this statement is referring to a different matter entirely and therefore means the opposite of “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of the colour.” 


“O, for a horse with wings!”

Cymbeline, Act 3, Scene 2.

I don’t actually know what this means but I sure do like it. 

However, if I had to guess, given the context in which it was written, I suspect it means that a winged horse would cut down on travel time. Posthumus, with murder in his heart, is keen to see his wife Imogen and beckons her to Cambria at Milford-Haven and a winged horse would certainly speed up the proceedings. 


“Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.”

Venus and Adonis, Act 1, Scene 1.

This one took some pondering. I thought it meant that the horse in question had everything going for him except for the rider on his back. A friend of mine took it to mean the proud rider added to the grandness of the horse and after some deliberation, I feel she is correct. We, the riders, are not a hindrance but rather an accoutrement. And a good one at that, methinks. 


“But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests, and, like deceitful jades,
Sink in the trial.”

Julius Caesar Act 4, Scene 2.

I feel the word bravado sums things up. 

I’ll admit I’m dismayed that men and horses are so easily equitable. Regrettably, I find the former far more puzzling than the latter. 

The End

It’s surprising how little has changed in the last 500 years regarding horses and humans. Shakespeare was nothing if not proficient and prolific. 

And I promise I will veer away from Shakespeare after this, as there is no need to relive the trauma, we all surely experience in high school English.

Feature Image: British Library

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