11 responses so far ↓
  • 1 Rod Butcher // Jan 17, 2013 at 6:39 am

    I suggest that the “dogs” referred to at the time were mechanical restraining devices that would have been familiar to artisans in Shakespeare’s audience, rather than canines. Certainly there was no British tradition of using dogs for warlike activities, and “war canines” would have meant nothing to his audience.
    Hence – I suggest Shakespeare referred metaphorically to releasing the devices restraining war – this was a philosophical discussion, and he referred to the concept of what allowed or inhibited war in civilised societies. “Let slip” certainly fits the passive sense of allowing restraints to somehow fall away or become ineffective, whereas the direct commitment of wild dogs onto the stage is a violent positive action for which the term seems unsuited.
    This is a typical example of how people assume that the current most common meaning of a word must infallibly have been the sense intended by an author hundreds of years ago, ether through ignorance of alternate meanings or a wilful desire to impose their own interpretation.

  • 2 Peter // Jan 17, 2013 at 7:54 am


    I don’t think anyone believes Shakespeare literally meant “dogs.”

  • 3 george // Feb 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I used to think that the word ” dogs of war ” meant mercenary solders i.e solders who undertook wars only for mony though now I find that shakespeare meant the normal solders.

  • 4 James // May 31, 2013 at 4:36 am

    I think he did indeed means dogs, both as literal and allegorical reference to war. War dogs may not have been common in Shakespeare’s day, but they were in Roman times. They had smaller war dogs that the Celts, who had the fore-fathers of today’s bull mastiffs and used them in war, and frightened the Roamns something silly with their size and aggression, to the point that the Romans adopted them and utilised them in later campaigns. When you slip a dog you have a hold of the collar, get the dog sighted on whatever its hunting/chasing/attacking and then literally slip your hand from its collar and let it run and attack. It is a literal phrase referencing the use of dogs in war, and an allegory for unleashing war itself.

  • 5 mark // Jul 21, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I suggest reading Junkyard Dogs & William Shakespeare. Incidentally, Shakespeare’s partner, Richard Burbage subsidized his theatrical income fighting dogs for profit. Believe it or not, dog fighting was the most popular form of entertainment in Shakespeare’s day.

  • 6 Colby // Aug 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Yes and yes–Rod and James. In your efforts to make one dimensional arguments, the combined effort most likely captures the true complexity of the phrase. One that paints both a literal image for the masses and a metaphorical wink to ”jus in bello” (lack thereof). Rod’s insights greatly enrich the discussion and are much appreciated.

    As we well know, Shakes’ was writing for two audiences–exemplar pov above.

  • 7 Bill // Nov 21, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Stumbled onto this looking for the correct phrasing that I knew as “Let loose the dogs of war.” I find the article and the conversation in the comments very interesting. From someone with zero education and very little exposure to literature, I believe Shakespeare was not speaking in the literal sense of the phrase and was referencing soldiers, I never really understood Shakespeare’s writing as having much in the way of literal meaning. My opinion is also influenced by the fact that I AM a dog of war…or at least a former teufelhunde.

  • 8 steve lau // Nov 27, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    By “dogs” S meant everything – drones, machines, men and women, dogs, anything bent to the task of destruction. By crying “Havoc” you (monarchs, George Bush, Dick Cheney, anyone with the means) are declaring all bets are off, no restraints are necessary, your righteous revenge shall be taken.

  • 9 The Hellfires of Christmas | emptywheel // Dec 26, 2013 at 10:58 am

    […] on the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, I came across this terrific post that centers on a particularly apt passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As pointed out […]

  • 10 oscar // Jan 13, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Listen guys. Dogs were chocks put under the wheels of carts to keep them from rolling runaway downhill. Read the passage in this light. War is a fully loaded cart which, when let loose, really can cause havoc (random destruction).

  • 11 Ed // Jan 29, 2014 at 3:48 am

    “Let slip the dogs of war” ===
    All military organisations, even temporary ones, as in most Middle Age armies, need discipline and a code of conduct – restraint in their individual actions. The first (admiralty) quotation loosely translates as “Item: let no-one cry ‘Havoc’ on pain of having their head cut (off)”. “Havoc” removed these restraints and commanders had little control over their men. It matters not whether you take ‘dogs of war’ as a body of soldiers or a wheel restraint, Shakespeare was allegorising the lifting of the restraints of discipline. It sounds good too!

Leave a Comment