Word of the Day: Haggard

February 10, 2012 in Word of the Day

Although it’s not very polite, one can still say nowadays that someone is looking a bit ‘haggard’. Unfortunately, what we use the word to mean – “Wild-looking, applied [...] to the injurious effect upon the countenance of privation, want of rest, fatigue, anxiety, terror, or worry.” (OED) – is not the same as Shakespeare’s aim, as this passage from The Taming of the Shrew makes clear:

HORTENSIO Would all the world but he had quite forsworn!
For me, that I may surely keep mine oath,
I will be married to a wealtlly widow
Ere three days pass, which hath as long lov’d me
As I have lov’d this proud disdainful haggard.

Here Hortensio abandons his attempts to woo Kate (the eponymous ‘shrew’ of the play), taking leave of a woman he finds “proud, disdaindul”, and a “haggard”: that is to say, not ‘run-down’, but rather “wild”, or, better yet, “untamed”. “Haggard”, although it evolved to mean ‘wild-looking’, actually originates in falconry, where it means “a wild (female) hawk caught when in her adult plumage” (OED). Thus Petruchio, following what was once a common, euphuistic, metaphor, describes his plans for Kate, his shrewish future wife:

PETRUCHIO [...] Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper’s call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.

Peculiarly, this way of describing people in Shakespeare is only ever applied to women, and often carries overtones of male domination. Petruchio’s is ultimately comic, but Othello’s talk of haggards certainly is not. Enthralled by Iago, he promises that “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, / I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune.” Removing the metaphor, one could paraphrase as folllows, ‘If I find out that she’s disobedient, then – no matter what the cost – I’d cut all ties (jesses) between us.’

Last but not least in this swift flight over Shakespeare’s falconry, we have a woman using the word “haggard”. However, this woman is Twelfth Night’s Viola and she uses the word when disguised as a man. Continuing the gender-bending, she even portrays a man, and not a woman, “haggard”. That man is Feste, whom she likens to the touchy “haggard” who “check[s] at every feather / That comes before his eye”. The Fool of the play, unconstrained by decorum, reminds us of the wildness and hence the particular dramatic potential within this word in Shakespeare’s falconing time.

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