Shakespeare’s Dog Problem

I shall probably remember this day for a long time. It is the day when I began to see Shakespeare in a different light – the day I learnt that he hated dogs. Calamity indeed on a mega scale. Consider this:

Avaunt, you curs!
Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite,
Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach, or lym,
Bobtail tyke, or trundle-tail,
Tom will make him weep and wail;
For, with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leapt the hatch, and all are fled. (King Lear).

The word ‘dog’ appears in Shakespeare’s works nearly 200 times and there are plenty of ‘curs’, ‘hounds’ and ‘bitches’ too. The trouble is that in nearly every case, they are used as insults.

It’s very difficult for us British – we are a nation of dog lovers, it is in our DNA.  But Shakespeare is in our DNA too, most of us grew up with him. Learning that he hated dogs is like hearing something horrible about your best friend. Your first reaction is disbelief – you need to check the evidence. Sadly, it doesn’t look good.

“Whoreson dog” (Cymbeline, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida); “Slave, soulless villain, dog” (Anthony & Cleopatra); “egregious dog? O viper vile!” (Henry V); “cut throat dog” (Merchant of Venice); to name just a few. Often it is sufficient insult just to call a person a dog. When Richard III is killed at the end of the play of that name, the victorious Duke of Richmond proclaims, “God and your arms be praised, victorious friends ,the day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.”

In Shakespeare, dogs fight, chase sheep and steal or they are cowards that fawn and dissemble – King Lear lays it on doubly thick, complaining of his ‘dog-hearted’ daughters: “They flatter’d me like a dog.”

If one could find any instances where Shakespeare referred to dogs in a kindly or praising manner, it would even the balance, but if they exist, they must be very few. It’s not as if people of that time didn’t have pets – many of them certainly did. Mary Queen of Scots famously took her pet lapdog to the scaffold hidden in the folds of her dress, fellow-playwright Ben Johnson needed to hear his cat purring before setting pen to paper, while over in Germany, Martin Luther could not write unless his dog was lying at his feet.

So what went wrong in Shakespeare’s case?    Dr Metablog*, writing on the subject, wonders if Shakespeare suffered a mauling from a dog, or whether he just never had those kinds of interactions with dogs that we take for granted.

Certainly, the Bard has a reputation for being very bad at handling personal relationships (with his wife, family and fellow playwrights for example). Perhaps he was just bad at animal relationships too.

One longs to find a passage or two such as Byron wrote centuries afterwards, in his epitaph to his dog :

..in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone… (To his dog Boatswain.)

And WB Yeats did so effortlessly, even later:

 

… Bran, Sceolan, and Lomair,

Where are you with your long rough hair?

You go not where the red deer feeds,

Nor tear the foemen from their steeds. (Wanderings of Oisin).

 

But there are none in all Shakespeare’s works.

Surely a man even slightly ambivalent about dogs would be able to slip in a positive reference now and then. But no, it’s all this sort of thing –

 

So, thou common dog, did’st thou disgorge

Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard.

 And thou would’st eat thy dead vomit up,

And howl’st to find it. (King Henry IV, Part II).

 

– not, I think you would agree, the language of a dog lover. Or even a dog neutral. The man just didn’t like dogs.

The British are supposed to be a tolerant race but really, this takes the biscuit (!).

Eyebrows were raised at the idea of Shakespeare making dirty jokes and innuendoes; allowances certainly had to be made when we heard that he might possibly have smoked some wacky baccy. This news however seems to leave us no choice:

Cry ‘havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war! (Julius Caesar).

Chris Burn

Chris Burn

Chris Burn is a Writer, Psychotherapist and Chartered Accountant. His daily website poetrychangeslives.com promotes the idea of change through an awareness of poetry, history and spirituality – subjects that are fast disappearing from many school curricula. His books - Poetry Changes Lives and The Fun We Had, show how life should be enjoyed.Chris is married with three children and lives in the Scottish Borders and London.
Chris Burn

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