Among the many things we wish we knew about Shakespeare is whether he ever had a dog. One could easily imagine William as a boy growing up in the provincial town of Stratford, the eldest son of a local glove-maker, wandering the countryside with his favorite hound. And though it would have been difficult for him to keep a pet in his small London flat during his busy career as actor and playwright, he might well have gotten a dog when he retired from the theater and returned to Stratford to spend his last years with his wife in one of the best houses in town.
The word “dog” appears more than 200 times in his plays. Unfortunately, it’s usually used in some form of insult: “unmannered dog!” (Richard III) or “inhuman dog!” (Othello). Less often the word signifies loyalty and dependability: “He’s a good dog, and a fair dog” (Merry Wives of Windsor) or “As true a dog as ever fought” (Titus Andronicus). Sometimes the word is found in common expressions: “Dog them at the heels” (1 Henry IV) or “Dog will have his day” (Hamlet). And occasionally Shakespeare astounds us with a phrase we never thought of before, but having heard it once will never forget: “Let slip the dogs of war!” (Julius Caesar).
For all his use of the word, though, an actual dog appears in only one of the 38 surviving plays attributed to Shakespeare. In fact, it is the only animal whatsoever written into any of the scripts. The scarcity of dogs in live theater, even today, is understandable. You need a well-trained animal that will reliably do what you expect night after night before thousands of spectators. Plus, it would be helpful to have an understudy in case your star pooch suddenly takes ill. And when considering Shakespeare, we also have to keep in mind that this was the 16th Century, when there were few, if any, trained dogs available and the audience was not seated a comfortable distance away from the stage, but crowded around it, some standing within inches of the platform. Shakespeare wisely avoided the pitfalls of using a live animal in his plays—except once. So who is the lucky dog, the single canine actor to strut the stage of the greatest dramatist of all time?
Yes, his name is Crab, and the play is Two Gentlemen of Verona, a comedy that some believe to be Shakespeare’s very first play, perhaps written in 1590 or 1591. Though Crab doesn’t garner a place in the “Dramatis Personae,” the list of characters at the beginning of the play, he strolls out boldly in Act II. His owner, Lance, the clownish servant of the main character, is on his way to Milan but takes time to rest briefly onstage with Crab and passes the time making several rather broad dog jokes before exiting.
A couple of scenes later Lance and Crab appear again, now in Milan, and Crab is called upon to do something by way of answering a question. Now, asking for a certain response from an animal is the riskiest part of bringing a dog onstage. Luckily, though, the required action in this case is fairly easy to elicit in a dog. Crab must wag his tail, and presumably he played the part well, for the dialog between the human characters indicates that the question is answered satisfactorily.
Crab’s third and last appearance is in Act IV. Again he is led onstage by Lance. Apparently Lance had been asked by his employer to deliver a small lapdog as a gift to the employer’s ladylove, but when the lapdog disappeared, Lance substituted Crab, who, as Lance tells it, is “as big as ten” of the other. But when introduced to the lady, Crab promptly stole a capon leg from the lady’s plate, snuck under the dinner table to eat it, and then escaped the hall, but not before lifting his leg on the lady’s skirts. All this is related to us by Lance as poor Crab must stand by patiently and suffer the comic reprimand for his ungentlemanly behavior. When Lance is done, a properly chastised Crab is led offstage. In most modern productions, he reappears to take a final bow (or bow wow) with the rest of the cast at the end of the play and, as he is always a huge favorite with the audience, he invariably upstages the human actors and gets the most applause.
We don’t know the name of Shakespeare’s only canine thespian. Maybe it really was Crab. What we do know is that Shakespeare always wrote for the same group of actors, a repertory company as we would call it today, and so he would never have written a part unless he knew there was someone available to play it. That would tend to suggest that Shakespeare had a certain dog in mind when he wrote the play. Did a member of the company, perhaps the one who played Lance, regularly bring his dog to rehearsals? If the dog was not excitable, was used to crowds, and was agreeable to standing quietly by your side for several minutes while you talked, it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare was willing to take a chance and write him into the play.
Over the four and a quarter centuries since that first, lone dog graced the boards, he has been succeeded many, many times by many, many of his brethren, most recently in a much acclaimed 2015 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. (This time we do have the four-footed actor’s name: Mossup) We will never know the identity of the real dog, probably a mutt, who originated the part, just as we may never identify the talented boys who first played Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra. (Boy actors played the female roles in Shakespeare’s day.) But it is sufficient that Shakespeare thought enough of one particular dog at the very beginning of his theatrical career to give it a chance on the stage—and thereby be immortalized. We should all be so lucky as Crab!
by Richard Matturro