In a recent post, I casually mentioned that William Shakespeare was not fond of dogs and I offered as evidence the fact that the two villainous sisters in King Lear are called "dog-hearted daughters." Not convincing, says one of my readers. Is that so? Well, let me offer further evidence of dog-heartedness. Shakespeare's first true villain, Richard of Gloucester, is metaphorically speaking, a dog. According to the legend, which the character himself embraces and flaunts, Richard was born with a full set of teeth "which plainly signified/ That I should snarl and bite and play the dog." Not a tractable or ingratiating dog either, but one who is both treacherous and poisonous: "when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites,/ His venom tooth will rankle to the death." At the end of Richard III, when Richard is killed at the climactic battle of Bosworth Field, his heroic Tudor 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." So here's a pretty pack of hounds: Goneril, Regan, and Richard of Gloucester. And yet one more villain -- Iago in Othello: "O damn'd Iago. O inhuman dog."
In the Shakespearian universe, villains are regularly described as dogs, but dogs are never, ever, characterized as loyal, or affectionate, or helpful. They're anything but our newspaper-fetching friends. On the contrary, dogs are "base," "unmanner'd," "thievish," "mangy," "hellish," "whoreson," "coward," "rascal," and "bloody." Shakespeare often uses the dysphemism "cur" for dog. Curs are "mongrel," "cruel-hearted," "o'erweening," "whoreson indistinguishable," and "venom-mouth'd." Hounds, highly regarded by some for their hunting ability, are "false" or "fell and cruel." Both Richard of Gloucester and Macbeth are "hell-hounds." Shakespeare's dogs are regularly associated with disorder, violence and evil; everyone knows Mark Anthony's "Cry 'havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war."
Shakespeare draws upon dogs when he wants to describe an uncivilized and wild world. Henry IV fears what England will become when his undisciplined son succeeds him: "For the fifth Harry from curb'd license plucks/ The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog/ Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent." Dogs are untrustworthy, because they are "easily won to fawn on any man." "They turn... As dogs upon their masters." When the conspirators murdered Caesar, they "fawn'd like hounds,/ And bowed like bondsmen, kissing Caesar's feet;/ Whilst damned Casca, like a cur, behind/ Struck Caesar on the neck." Dogs are not only disloyal, they're disgusting as well. In The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, Archbishop Scroop complains that the common people are no more loyal to Henry than they were to his predecessor Richard II. "So, thou (i.e. the people) common dog, did'st thou disgorge/ Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard./ And thou would'st eat thy dead vomit up,/ And howl'st to find it."
Shakespeare knew his dogs and had their names at his finger tips. Macbeth runs through a catalog: "hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs/ Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept/ All by the name of dogs." Mad Edgar, in Lear, makes a similar list: "Be thy mouth or black or white,/ Tooth that poisons if it bite;/ Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim./ Hound or spaniel, brach or lym,/ Bobtail tyke or trundle tail." Shakespeare had a particular and peculiar dislike of fawning dogs, whom (as was first noticed by Walter Whiter in 1794) he lumps together with (strange as it seems) candy or sweets, and images of melting. When Hotspur thinks back to an early encounter with the future King Henry IV, he remembers "Why, what a candy deal of courtesy, this fawning greyhound then did proffer me." In Anthony and Cleopatra, Anthony realizes that his followers are abandoning him; he laments 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." Flattering dogs and sweets are bound so closely in Shakespeare's subconscious that sometimes the dog is implicit rather than explicit. Hamlet 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 thrift [i.e. advantage] may follow fawning." A reader who is familiar with Shakespeare's imagination can detect the ghost of a fawning spaniel behind that "candied tongue." The ghost of a ghost is there also in King Lear, where Lear, in his madness, imagines that he surrounded by a pack of hounds: "The little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me."
Did Shakespeare suffer some traumatic childhood event involving dogs and candy? It has been so suspected? Whether yea nor nay, it's more than clear that Shakespeare's loathing of dogs was not of the surface; it was a deep and elemental revulsion.