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William Shakespeare Hated Dogs

None of the bard's characters ever said a kind word about a dog.

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William Shakespeare hated dogs.

I realize that’s a bold claim. Here is a guy who put thousands of words into the mouths of hundreds of people. We have no basis for believing that anything any of his characters said represents his personal opinion. And yet, when a man can give voice to kings and commoners; men and women; adults and children; English, Scots, Italians, Romans, not to mention fairies and other mythical beings, and not one of them ever finds a good thing to say about dogs—that has to mean something.

I bring this up because I wrote a little while ago about how burials provide evidence of people caring for dogs going back many thousands of years. I wouldn’t want that post to leave the impression that I believe everyone has always cared about dogs. That is clearly not the case today, and there are strong grounds to believe that our ancestors, not enjoying the standard of living that we take for granted today, were probably, on average, less indulgent of dogs.

The constable of the watch with his dog from Much Ado About Nothing
Source: 17th century Anonymous Artist. courtesy of the Yorck Project, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share- Alike License.

It isn’t that people in Shakespeare’s works never mention dogs. On the contrary, the word dog appears nearly 200 times, with another 27 for cur (mutt); 53 for hound; five for brach (a female dog); and three for bitch. For comparison, Shakespeare’s people say England 271 times—so dogs are a pretty popular topic around the Shakespearean water cooler.

But what stands out in Shakespeare’s references to dogs is that they are nearly all insults. “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 insult enough just to liken a person to a dog. When Richard III is killed at the end of the play of that name, victorious Richmond proclaims, “God and your arms be praised, victorious friends,/ The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.”

When Shakespeare has people describe the things that dogs do, they are seldom attractive activities. In Coriolanus, Sicinius Velutus points out that the rabble may be turned against Corialanus “as easy/ As to set dogs on sheep.” The same image is used in Richard III. Dogs are often cudgeled; they can be cowards; they bark and bay; they fight; they steal. And when they try to make friends, they are just fawning. King Lear complains of his daughters, “They flatter'd me like a dog.”

I know only two Shakespeare plays where a dog appears on stage.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Starveling, one of the peasants who performs an amateurish play to amuse King Theseus and his friends, comes on stage and announces:

“All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the
lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this
thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.”

I read this presence of a dog, announced but unnamed, to underline Starveling’s foolishness: What idiot stands on a stage with three clearly visible objects and enumerates them?

The other Shakespeare play with a role for a dog, is considered the bard’s earliest work. In Two Gentleman of Verona, Launce, a comical servant, often refers to his dog, Crab. In a famous speech, Launce explains how, when Crab is caught pissing under a banquet table,

“all the chamber smelt him. 'Out with the dog!' says
one: 'What cur is that?' says another: 'Whip him
out' says the third: 'Hang him up' says the duke.
I, having been acquainted with the smell before,
knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that
whips the dogs: 'Friend,' quoth I, 'you mean to whip
the dog?' 'Ay, marry, do I,' quoth he. 'You do him
the more wrong,' quoth I; ''twas I did the thing you
wot of.' He makes me no more ado, but whips me out
of the chamber. How many masters would do this for
his servant?”

Launce with Crab by Sir John Gilbert. 1862.
Source: Sir John Gilbert. Illustrations to Songs and Sonnets of Shakespeare. Out of copyright

As with Starveling, Launce’s commitment to his dog—to the point of taking a whipping for him—only serves to underscore his own foolishness. It is also interesting to note that, at a banquet, there was a role for “the fellow that whips the dogs.”

Dogs are seldom named in Shakespeare’s work. King Lear, as he is driven mad by his ungrateful daughters (whom he has earlier called, “dog hearted”), appears to hallucinate the presence of yapping little dogs around him, “The little dogs and all,/ Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.”

In the other two contexts in which dogs have names, these are hunting dogs, or hounds. In the prologue to the Taming of the Shrew, the Lord and First Huntsman discuss the hunt they have just successfully completed and give names to five hounds: “Merriman,” “Clowder,” Silver,” “Bellman,” and “Echo.” Here there are no insults, just compliments. The Lord goes on to mention he wouldn’t take 20 pounds for his most successful dog.

Theseus and Hippolyta, toward the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as they await their wedding, exchange stories of hunting with wonderful hounds in diverse places, and mention some of the dogs’ names. Although these dogs are valued, I don’t sense any affection in the descriptions of them. Rather they are utilitarian objects useful to a hunter, like rifles today.

The overwhelming impression from the numerous references Shakespeare made to dogs, is that, with the exception of hunting hounds, these animals were nothing but nuisances in his world. They were dirty, dangerous, and bothersome. Even when they were being friendly, their fawning could not be trusted. A partial exception can be made for the hounds that lords hunted with, but, even there, I do not any affection in Shakespeare’s tone. Whether, as Dr. Metablog, in an interesting post on this topic conjectures, Shakespeare suffered a mauling from a dog, or whether he just never had those kinds of interactions with dogs that we take for granted, I think it is clear that William Shakespeare hated dogs.


This post was inspired by a performance of King Lear by the Southwest Shakespeare Company, and it profited from Dr. Metablog’s post “Shakespeare and dogs.”

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