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Dogs in Shakespeare

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Dogs have long been used as metaphors to describe determination and loyalty, as well as tenacity. William Shakespeare too uses these descriptions, but also describes dogs in relation to their role in war and fighting, and his writings have formed a key part of our study of the English language, theatre and the arts, and Tudor history.

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. Very little is known about his early life. His marriage to Anne Hathaway was recorded in 1568 and the birth of his three children, Susanna and the twins Hamnet and Judith, are some of the only records of his private life. The absence of records continues to fuel suspicion over how many of the works that are attributed to Shakespeare he actually wrote. He spent time in London where he worked as an actor as well as a writer in the popular theatres of Elizabethan London (1558–1603). Most of his plays were written in the period between 1590 and 1613 while he was in London or touring with his playing company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The company subsequently became known as The King’s Men on the accession of James I (1603–25) to the throne.

He wrote tragedies, comedies and history plays, along with a number of poems and sonnets. Julius Caesar, his play about the Roman emperor, is considered one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and in its lines can be found arguably one of the most famous quotes about dog symbolism. In Act 3, Scene 1, the play’s namesake has just been murdered when Mark Antony enters. After the others have left him, he speaks a large soliloquy ending with the lines:

… All pity choked with custom of fell deeds;

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,

With Ate by his side come hot from hell,

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war,

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth

With carrion men groaning for burial. 

Here, dogs are used as a metaphor for mindless and indiscriminate killers who will do simply as their masters order. They also represent those who seek revenge despite the violence that will prevail as a consequence.

Julius Caesar is thought to have been written in around 1599 and first printed in 1623. None of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts survive, so it is the early editions of his plays which form the basis of the study of his work. Some printings even show changes in the text of other famous lines, revealing the tweaks that Shakespeare himself made during his lifetime: ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ from Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet only appears as such in 1605, whereas in a 1603 version it appears as ‘To be, or not to be, I there’s the point’. 

Shakespeare returned to Stratford in 1613, retiring from his career aged 49. He died on 23 April 1616, aged 52. His two surviving daughters both had children, however Shakespeare’s grandchildren died without heirs, therefore ending his direct bloodline.

The use of the famous description of ‘the dogs of war’ has now become synonymous with many different ideas, but most notably the Frederick Forsyth book Dogs of War and subsequent film. The image of the dogs of war as being unscrupulous and violent with no considerations of the outcomes of their actions became attached to the portrayal of human mercenaries, hence the use of the phrase by Forsyth.

2016 marks the 400th year of William Shakespeare’s death and commemorations are sure to made around Britain.

This is an exclusive extract from A History of Britain in 100 Dogs by Emma White, due for release later this year

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