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Scientist, world-famous dog show judge and literary genius combines his love of dogs and Shakespeare in this literally fascinating read.


Shakespeare’s Dogs

Fred Lanting, All-Breed Judge, Sieger/Schutzhund, SAAB


I occasionally get hungry to read again my 4-volume set of some of Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Comedies, and sometimes his sonnets and other works. While compiling some of my favorite quotes from his dramas, I noticed his references to dogs, and decided to kennel these together and let you pet them.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was basically a city guy, because that’s where big-enough audiences in England could be assembled. There, dogs generally were not the useful or companionable creatures we have known for the past two or three centuries. Many were street-curs, scavengers, or others useful in raising an alarm in case of an intruder. His references reflect how his audiences thought about most dogs. However, in both city and countryside worlds, he observed [as in Coriolanus] that “nature teaches beasts to know their friends.” And in rural areas, dogs came closer to being considered “friends”—though not by much.

Only in the country did they really work for a living as hunters and even then they seldom had the treatment we are familiar with today. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus says, “Go, find out the forester. My love shall hear the music of my hounds. Uncouple in the western valley. Let them go. We will mark the musical confusion of hounds, and echo in conjunction.” Hippolyta replies: “I was with Hercules and Cadmus once, when in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear with hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear such gallant chiding. For, besides the groves, the skies, the fountains, every region near seemed all one mutual cry. So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

Theseus then brags, “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 tunable was never hollaed to, nor cheered with horn, in Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly. Judge when you hear.

Shakespeare used the word(s) “dog” or “dogs” over 200 times in his plays. And that does not include other names such as puppy, hound, etc. He was the first writer to use the compound noun “watchdog”, in The Tempest. He also is credited with coining many now-famous phrases such as the “dog will have his day” (Hamlet) but we don’t know how many he may have heard and repeated—those who first write things down are given the credits. In Julius Caesar we have the famous “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”—he was familiar with the use the Romans put to the Mastiff types in conquering much of the known ancient world. And when conspirators murdered Caesar, they “fawn’d like hounds, and… the damned Casca, like a cur, behind struck Caesar on the neck.

Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says: “I am your spaniel, and the more you beat me, I will fawn on you. Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me. Only give me leave, unworthy as I am, to follow you. What worser place can I beg in your love—and yet a place of high respect with me—than to be usèd as you use your dog?” In Othello, a whipping was seen as one way to feign strength and threaten others: “…a punishment more in policy than in malice even as one would beat his offenseless dog to affright an imperious lion.

Some dogs were likened to a “wolf in greediness, a dog in madness” (Tragedy of King Lear). Many others were seen as fawning and as cheap as melting candy, such as described in Henry IV: “What a candy deal of courtesy this fawning greyhound then did proffer me.” And in Anthony and Cleopatra, as the hero’s followers abandon him, he complains that “the hearts that spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets on blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d that overtopp’d them all.” The imagery of candy likened to fawning, groveling, sweetness is repeated elsewhere: Hamlet says to Horatio: “Why should the poor be flattered? No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, and crook the pregnant hinges of the knee, where advantage may follow fawning.” Another allusion is in King Lear: “They flattered me like a dog.

Closely following someone or something, sometimes in a nagging way, is often called “dogging” or “at heel.” In Richard II, “Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels.” And in Troilus and Cressida, “Both our honor and our shame in this are dogg’d with two strange followers.

In those days of untrained and therefore untrustworthy canine examples, such as the times of Henry V, people turned “as dogs upon their masters.” He worried about revolt when his son would succeed him: “For the fifth Harry from curbed license plucks the muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.” Later, the Archbishop complains that the commoners are no more loyal to Henry than they were to his predecessor Richard II. “So, thou common dog (i.e. the people), did’st thou disgorge thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard. And thou would eat thy dead vomited up, and howl to find it.” In Timor of Athens, “Grant that I may never prove so fond as to trust a harlot for weeping or a dog that seems a-sleeping.

Untrained or non-leashed dogs were not trustworthy. In Henry V, advice is: “Trust no one, for oaths are straws, wafer-cakes; and Holdfast is the only dog.” (You can only rely on what you can hold onto.) In the same play, “He has no more direction in the true disciplines of the wars, than [does] a puppy-dog.” Indiscriminate biting is again referenced in Henry VI: “The midwife wondered; and the women cried ‘O, he is born with teeth!’ And so I was, which plainly signified that I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog.” In Othello, someone is described “as full of quarrel and offense as my young mistress’ dog.

In some of his humorous passages in Two Gentlemen of Verona, dim-witted Launce talks about his dog “Crab”: “I think he is the sourest-natured dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear: he is a stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog. Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears. O, I [wish I had] one that takes upon him to be a dog indeed, to be, as it were, a dog at all things.” Later, in Act IV, he describes the dog stealing food, defecating under the Duke’s dining table, and otherwise showing bad manners (no training). Launce’s reaction: “I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and I go to the fellow that whips the dogs.” Amazingly, this “training method” is still practiced in some homes today!

In the bard’s day, the attitude usually was “Kids are kids, dogs act like dogs, whaddaya gonna do?” Usually, the answer was “Beat them.” In Merchant of Venice Shylock says to Antonio, “You, that did (kick) me over your threshold as you spurn a stranger cur…

Shakespeare and others of olden times almost never characterized dogs as loyal, or affectionate, or helpful. For the most part, they’re not our stick-fetching companions. In his culture, dogs were (as variously described throughout King Lear) “base, unmannered, thievish, mangy, hellish, coward, rascal, bloody.” He frequently used the word “cur” as synonymous with “mongrel, cruel-hearted, o’erweening, whoreson indistinguishable, venom-mouthed” and on the same level as murderers (Macbeth, III/1).


We admire hounds for their hunting ability, but most in his plays are described as “false” or “fell and cruel.” Villains are called “hell-hounds” (he named both Richard of Gloucester and Macbeth).  The two equally villainous sisters in King Lear are “dog-hearted daughters.” “Whoreson dog” is found in Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida. In Anthony & Cleopatra; “slave, soulless villain, dog”; “egregious dog!” in Henry V; “cut-throat dog” in Merchant of Venice; these are just a few more examples.


Richard of Gloucester is metaphorically a vicious dog. Legend has it, and the character himself claims it, he had been born with a full set of teeth “which plainly signified that I should snarl and bite and play the dog”— one both treacherous and poisonous: “When he fawns, he bites; and when he bites, his venom tooth will rankle to the death.” And upon his demise, his successor Henry Richmond proclaims victory in these words: “God and your arms be praised, victorious friends. The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.” Similarly other villains so described met similar ends: Goneril, Regan, and yet one more villain—in Othello: “O damn’d Iago, O inhuman dog!

In the countryside, especially, he observed that canine bravery is often a matter of connection or ownership, on duty. In King Lear, “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? And the creature run from the cur. There thou might’st behold the great image of authority—a dog’s obeyed in office.” But away from a master’s property, dogs typically were cowardly (the English back then did not have Police K9 or Schutzhund clubs to develop dog’s bravery). Also in Lear, Edgar brags about scaring dogs away: “Avaunt, you curs! mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim, hound or spaniel, brach [bitch] or lym (him), bobtail tyke or trundle-tail—For with throwing thus my head, dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled, be their mouth either black or white, or tooth that poisons if it bite.

Similar descriptions or names appear elsewhere, and he sometimes applied them equally to men: watch-dog, water-spaniel, etc. In Macbeth, “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; as hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves, are clept all by the name of ‘dogs’: the valued file distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle, the housekeeper, the hunter, every one according to the gift which bounteous nature hath in him closed.” [shough: obsolete word, likely for a type of lapdog brought from Iceland. See picture.] Icelandic Sheepdogs were one of the few dog breeds William Shakespeare actually mentioned by name (sort of) that wouldn’t sound like an insult if one didn’t already know the poet’s feelings about curs. It is found in Henry V: “Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-ear’d cur of Iceland!

Speaking of insults, he refers in Timon to loose women as “bitches” and adds, “Get thee away, and take thy beagles with thee.” I refer you also to Act 4 of Julius Caesar: “I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon, than be such a Roman” and in Much Ado About Nothing, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.

But show a little kindness, and dogs will appreciate it. “O villains, vipers, dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!Richard II. Some say that Shakespeare’s dogs do not really express “loyalty” and explain that in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena says she is Demetrius’ spaniel, closely following him even as he spurns her, it is more a matter of timid reliance.

The relative esteem of men and dogs is often compared. Dogberry says in Much Ado About Nothing, “Truly, I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him.” And in Timon of Athens, we read “Thou art a slave, a dog.” Yes, dogs sometimes worked like slaves, cart-pullers, and the like: “She had transformed me to a curtal dog, and made me turn in the wheel.” (Comedy of Errors).

Dogs bark. Everybody knows that, but not everybody is a dog person, capable of understanding their language. In Henry V, “Coward dogs most spend their mouths when what they seem to threaten runs far before them.” In Merchant of Venice, the dogs are told to shut up: “When I open my lips, let no dog bark.” Others disliked the noise, too: “A pox on your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!” (The Tempest). They bark at intruders, but also at strange sights: The real Richard III wasn’t a hunchback but he did have scoliosis, a distorted spinal curvature. Shakespeare has him complain, “I am not shaped for sportive tricks; I, that am rudely stamped, and lack love’s majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtailed of fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, and made so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” This was confirmed when, in 2013, his remains were found under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Dogs bite, too. That’s obvious, but it was more likely in olden days before they became partners in sport and home. In Merchant of Venice, “Thou callest me a dog before thou hast cause. But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” And, in the same play, Soliano refers to Shylock as “The most impenetrable cur that ever kept with men.” On rare occasions, the untrained dogs of Shakespeare’s time might bite people whom they surely should not; they “turn into your bosoms as dogs upon their masters, worrying you.” (Henry V).

And, while the bard gave only a nod to dogs’ use in sporting events and hunting, he gives us this discussion by a few sportsmen in Merry Wives of Windsor: “Slen: How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard say he was outrun on Cotsall. Page: It could not be judged, sir. Shal.: That he will not: ‘tis your fault. ‘Tis a good dog. Page.: A cur, sir. Shal.: Sir, he’s a good dog, and a fair dog—can there be more said? He is good and fair.” Hunting with dogs is mentioned a few times in various plays, such as in Timon of Athens: “Lord Lucullus entreats your company to hunt with him and has sent you two brace of greyhounds.” In Henry V, “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start.

In Taming of the Shrew, we overhear a discussion in the field where dogs are being used in the hunt: Lord says, “Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds; Brach Merriman, the poor cur, is embossed. And couple Clowder with the deep-mouth’d brach. Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good at the hedge corner, in the coldest fault? I would not lose that dog for twenty pounds!” And the huntsman replies: “Why, [my] 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.” But the lord says: “Thou art a fool; if Echo were as fleet, I would esteem him worth a dozen such. But sup them well, and look unto them all; tomorrow I intend to hunt again.

Not much is said of dogs used for fighting (whether bulls, people, other dogs, etc.) but occasional comments may indicate it was not wholly unknown: “As true a dog as ever fought at head.” (Titus Andronicus).

References to the unclean or rabies appear: In Macbeth, the witches brew a poisonous kettleful containing “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing, for a charm of powerful trouble.” And in Comedy of Errors, “The venom clamours of a jealous woman poison more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.” In Antony and Cleopatra, “Patience is sottish, and impatience suits a dog that’s mad. [Sottish: muddleheaded, cloddish, drunken, or stupid.] Dogs are not the only ones that go mad—Lear, losing his mind, hears a pack of imaginary dogs surrounding him: “The little dogs Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart—see, they bark at me.” (Incidentally, George Washington, a Shakespeare reader, named one of his dogs “Sweetheart”.)

Fred Lanting on current judging in TaiwanThe emotional connection between man and dog is not fully forgotten in the bard’s plays. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, speaking of a maid : “She serves for wages and hath more qualities than a water-spaniel; which is much.” In Timon of Athens, “I hate mankind. I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee some.

On that note, I close this tour of Shakespeare’s kennel and quote Hamlet, Act 5, “The cat will mew and the dog will have his day.” I hope you and your dog have a very good one.


 Editor's Note: Fred Lanting is known to us as a “dog man” (worldwide judge, trainer, lecturer) and to others as a retired organic chemist and college instructor. He is also a student of Philosophy and Shakespeare and we thank him for combining his love of The Bard and the barkers.  Be sure to peruse these Dog Books by Fred Lanting EST 1998 © 1809



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