Was Shakespeare a dog person?
This blog has often discussed metaphor, the misdirection of words to better direct meaning. Today, we investigate the potential of metaphor to answer a silly question about a serious subject: what did William Shakespeare really think of dogs?
In a 2009 article for the New York Review, Stephen Greenblatt, an eminent scholar of early modern literature, remarked that Shakespeare ‘seems to have disliked dogs’. Predictably, this set off a scuffle in the editorial pages, with a reader writing in to protest that Shakespeare’s plays contain the kind of ‘dog lovers’ dialogue’ that one might hear at a meeting of the American Kennel Club. In The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example:
LORD: Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds.
Breathe Merriman—the poor cur is embossed—
And couple Clowder with the deep-mouthed brach.
Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge-corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound.
FIRST HUNTSMAN: Why, Belman is as good as he, my lord.
He cried upon it at the merest loss,
And twice today picked out the dullest scent.
Trust me, I take him for the better dog.
THESEUS: My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flewed, so sanded; and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew,
Crook-kneed, and dew-lapped like Thessalian bulls,
Slow in pursuit, but matched in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla’d to nor cheer’d with horn
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly.
Judge when you hear.
Greenblatt replied that such passages merely ventriloquize the affection that aristocrats had for their working hounds. Moreover, he added, many passages instead use dog as shorthand for something base: when authority lacks merit, laments King Lear, ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’. In still other passages, Shakespeare uses dogs to figure behavior that we despise in humans: ‘it is clear from the dozens of dog references in his work that he routinely associated man’s best friend with fawning flatterers, greedily licking up whatever treats anyone offers them, or with snarling, “venom-mouthed” ingrates.’
Why did Shakespeare find dogs good to think with?
Unit by unit, each disputant presents good evidence for his side. But we need not be limited to appraising a writer’s claims about a subject by the unit; we can also measure his interest in it by the pound. Shakespeare has, as Greenblatt says, ‘dozens of dog references in his work’; by contrast, his collected works contain a meager eight references to cats, two of which are also references to dogs. (‘The cat will mew, and dog will have its day.’) Such a comparison may suggest a different question: why were dogs, for Shakespeare, such a useful vehicle for metaphor? Or, to invoke Clifford Geertz: why did Shakespeare find dogs good to think with?
We can begin answering this question by returning to Greenblatt’s comment about Shakespearean dogs being flatterers and ingrates. For these traits do come up repeatedly in the playwright’s references to dogs, often when characters are venting spleen. A character laments one form of perverted loyalty: ‘Villains, vipers, damn’d without redemption; Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man.’ Another laments another: ‘The venom clamours of a jealous woman poison more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.’ Another compares an enemy to a bad dog: ‘A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!’
Shakespeare belonged to a patronage culture. Not only the poets and playwrights of his world relied on patronage, but also the patrons in their turn; one of Queen Elizabeth’s shrewdest maneuvers, as the historian Wallace MacCaffrey argued, was to make clear the monarchy’s role as a central power that controlled almost every resource that interested the upper classes. The range of positions that ultimately depended on her will extended down through the court, military command, the judiciary, church livings, the administration of royal lands, and the nation’s civil service, encompassing posts ‘varying in consequence… from the chancellorship of England down to a gunnership in the Tower of London’. It really was a world of gifts and fealty.
One example of a telling document from this culture is a 1604 pamphlet titled The Passions of the Mind in General, which proffers a remarkably long, bewilderingly detailed set of instructions on how to bestow and receive gifts. (The author organizes his discussion by more than a dozen categories that mark the circumstances of the gift: the greatness of the giver; strangeness in the giver; if the giver be our special friend; if the gift be exceeding dear unto the giver; the greatness of the gift in itself; if the gift tended to our great good or riddance from some great evil; if it be given with alacrity; if it were given by our enemies; if it were granted without suit or request, of the giver’s own accord; if the person by giving was endangered or damaged; and, for good measure, four circumstances more.)
In short, Shakespeare had reason to think deeply on matters of gratitude and ingratitude. In a patronage culture, these concepts were ripe for fetishization: for endowment with a special weight and meaning that seems to organize the natural world, or the moral universe, or human character. And this is where dogs come in. Dogs famously express great fealty to their masters, and seem unnatural when they do not. They are easy emblems of gratitude. By contrast, cats, for instance, are good companions, but they aren’t known for being grateful. Shakespeare works up sundry images of dogs as flatterers or ingrates, but this doesn’t mean he thought of dogs in such mean terms; only that dogs provided a good language for talking about gratitude and its perversions.
Of course, liking dogs or not liking them is a fetishized distinction in our own culture. (Shakespeare sounds callous when he refers to dogs as unwanted creatures, but in his place and time, they roamed free in the streets. In a world with neutering, fostering, and no-kill shelters, the description sounds even more like an insult.) We know that Shakespeare paid attention to dogs, and that he knew something about them; modern critics have sometimes used these revelations of proficiency as windows into Shakespeare’s character. (For example, the Victorian writer Walter Bagehot wrote of one such passage: ‘The man who wrote this was a judge of dogs, was an out-of-door sporting man, full of natural sensibility…’ In other words, a dog person is outdoorsy, jovial, capable, a practitioner rather than a theorist; if Shakespeare was a dog person, then he must have been these other things.)
But the most we can definitely know about his thoughts is that he reflected on the values of his patronage culture, a culture dependent on patron-client relationships and fealty, and saw dogs as useful emblems because they exemplified those values. In a saying from Shakespeare’s time that he gives (with slight abridgment) to one of his characters: ‘Brag and Hold-Fast are both good dogs, but Hold-Fast is better.’
Thanks for information and advice go to Benedict Robinson, Associate Professor of English at SUNY Stony Brook.