26 August is National Dog Day in the USA, now being adopted as an international day for marking our relationships with dogs. Dogs were part of life in Shakespeare’s England, as they are in ours. They varied from the mastiffs used in the cruel sport of bear-baiting, to hunting dogs, household pets and lap-dogs like little Jewel who is spoken of in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
They have been our best friends for centuries, if not millennia. I recently visited the Anglo-Saxon church at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, in which the Cassey family brass dated around 1400 features, lying at the woman’s feet looking up at her, a little dog called Terri. Apparently he’s one of the earliest representations of a named pet anywhere.
We don’t know what Shakespeare thought of dogs, or if he ever owned one himself, but he was certainly aware of them. He mentions dogs many times: “Let slip the dogs of war” (Julius Caesar), “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips” (Henry V), “She’s a beagle, true-bred”, (Twelfth Night). Elsewhere Coriolanus describes the Roman commoners as curs, and spirits in the shape of dogs chase Stephano. Trinculo and Caliban in The Tempest. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Starveling, as the Man in the Moon, has a dog with him, but this is rarely a real dog.
But Shakespeare’s most famous dog is Crab, Launce’s pet in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He’s the only dog that has to appear onstage, and stay there for some minutes. Shakespeare must have known someone who had a dog to play the part, and was aware of the animal’s potential appeal to an audience. It’s been called “the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon”.
One of my favourite theatrical memories is of Woolly, a lurcher who first appeared as Crab in April 1991 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. David Thacker’s has been called the most successful production of this play ever produced. It’s one of Shakespeare’s first plays, and is difficult and uneven. The production featured settings of famous love songs such as “Love is the Sweetest Thing”, and “Night and Day” (the music was released as a separate CD), and a cast of up and coming young actors: Clare Holman as Julia, Saskia Reeves as Silvia, Barry (Finbar) Lynch as Proteus and Richard (Hugh) Bonneville as Valentine.
Woolly was partnered by Richard Moore as Proteus’s servant Launce. Richard was a long-term member of the RSC, skilled in getting the best out of Shakespeare’s lines. Launce is a comic role, but like many of Shakespeare’s comics, it can be tricky to make his speeches funny. As he is to accompany his master on a journey, he first describes the story of his departure from home:
I think Crab, my dog, be 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, a very pebble stone, and
has no more pity in him than a dog.
While Richard related the story, Woolly was the perfect foil. He was definitely of the “less is more” school of acting. Rather than being excited by being the centre of attention he surveyed the audience in the Swan Theatre with seeming indifference. He had mastered the difficult skill of being still onstage, undoubtedly realising that the best way of being noticed is just to stand there. There are many human actors who have not mastered this trick. But casting the occasional look at Richard, Woolly, the image of relaxation, even boredom, gave the occasional well-placed yawn.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play about friendship and loyalty, and although Crab is a disreputable dog, he’s still a faithful friend. When he misbehaves, Launce takes the blame.
Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the
stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had
been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese
he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.
Thou thinkest not of this now. Nay, I remember the
trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam
Silvia: did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I
do? when didst thou see me heave up my leg and make
water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? didst
thou ever see me do such a trick?
I’m pretty sure that the actor most of the audiences were talking about in their cars on the way home was Woolly. The production was so successful that after its normal transfers to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Barbican in London the play went on a national tour including another run in the capital. The only original members of the cast still there for the 1993-4 tour were Richard Moore as Launce and Woolly as Crab. It really was their show.
Shakespeare never wrote another proper part for a dog, and I’d like to think it was because the actors objected to Crab’s stealing of every scene he was in. Did Shakespeare learn something from this: that no matter how much clever, witty stuff you write, in the end acting is about more than delivering the lines? Dogs can certainly teach us humans a thing or two, and not just about acting.
The photo of Woolly and Richard Moore is from Corbis, click here for a link.