William Shakespeare mentions the word “dog” or “dogs” several hundred times in his works collectively. Shakespeare was the first writer to use the noun “Watchdog” (in the Tempest) and he is credited with coining the phrase “a dog will have his day” which is featured in Act V of Hamlet. Another famous phrase Shakespeare helped keep around was “let slip the dogs of war” and, my personal favorite, Shakespeare features a pet dog in the character of Crab from Two Gentlemen of Verona. With all of these references to man’s best friend, this week we are asking:
Did Shakespeare have a dog?
Dogs were very popular in Elizabethan times, being kept as pets and guard dogs, but also the strays were so numerous there were often official city notices put out to control the massive amounts of dogs running around the streets.
It seems that for Shakespeare, dogs carried much the same reputation they have today. The few who are lucky enough to become pet or service dogs are fiercely regarded and kept in good order with a high standard of living. Those dogs that run loose in a feral environment where they are dangerous to humans, however, would be ridiculed, hated, and exterminated.
There are several city records that demonstrate how dogs who were not kept under the control of their masters could be harbinger’s of plague, but also cited for other dangers like mauling unsuspecting travellers, or even in some cases killing humans.
In her article on Dogs in Elizabethan York, Pamela Hartshorne shares evidence of an archaeological dig done in York that shows a dog collar not unlike some we have today, with a large leather band studded with pewter.
In Shakespeare’s plays, dogs are almost always considered bad. The references to those hundreds of times the word dog is used are, for the majority, references to negative things or insults. In King Lear, Lear seems to hallucinate the presents of dogs barking at him. It’s hard to tell from the text if Lear is seeing these dogs bark at him in welcome or reproach.
It seems dogs were not largely regarded as valuable creatures, but there were a few, and even Shakespeare conceded that when he featured Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Launce, the servant in TGV, is so committed to his dog that he ends up taking a beating himself in defense of his pet. Some interpretations of Shakespeare use this scene to say that the inclusion of Crab serves to underscore Launce’s stupidity, while others suggest this demonstrates a unique look at pets in Elizabethan England and evidence people were just as crazy about their pets in Shakespeare’s time as they can be today. You can decide how you feel about it, but it does show that people, like Shakespeare, had pet dogs.
The English in general are reserved with their affection, so it’s difficult to ascertain if there really was no affection towards dogs, or if it was reserved affection. In my estimation, it seems as if dogs who served a practical purpose, for hunting or for companionship could be regarded with a kind of affection not unlike that you develop for a servant or employee who is loyal and true. Maybe they aren’t family, but you care deeply for their welfare.
Hunting dogs seemed to hold a particularly high ranking place among animals due to their special role as hunters for a Lord and his nobles. These dogs were often cared for, kept well, and expected to work.
Pets in general were not unheard of for Shakespeare’s lifetime, as portraits that are now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London will attest. There’s a painting dating to 1580s featuring Elizabethan children with their pet guinea pig. Exotic animals were all the rage, it seems, among nobility. An article in the Guardian cites “the exhibition will feature a positive menagerie of exotic and more humble animals, including an elephant on a family crest. There is also a ring in the shape of a grasshopper, and a purse fashioned as a frog. A recently discovered miniature of Elizabeth by Isaac Oliver shows her with a peacock.”
So what’s the answer to this week’s question? We don’t know obviously, but I’m on team No for this one. I think it’s highly likely Shakespeare’s family might have had a pet, even a dog on their estate in Stratford and possibly even a set of hunting dogs he kept there and would, by sheer ownership, be considered Shakespeare’s pets, but given that he travelled so much between London and Stratford, and did so much work between the theater and going to court for performances, I think it would be unlikely he’d personally have the time, but wouldn't it make a great image to think he walked through the streets of London with a dog who faithfully followed him about? It’s possible.
That’s it for this week here at Did Shakespeare. I’m Cassidy Cash, That Shakespeare Girl, and I hope you learned something new about the bard.
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