This is the first in a series of short posts in which I will attempt to explain the origin and meaning of certain phrases in Shakespeare.
Today’s phrase is from Julius Caesar and is uttered by Marc Anthony shortly after Caesar is assassinated:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
The Meaning of the Phrase
The Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin and meaning of “havoc”:
havoc early 15c., from Anglo-Fr. havok in phrase crier havok “cry havoc” (late 14c.), a signal to soldiers to seize plunder, from O.Fr. havot “pillaging, looting,” related to haver “to seize, grasp,” hef “hook,” probably from a Germanic source (see hawk (n.)), or from L. habere “to have, possess.” General sense of “devastation” first recorded late 15c.
Havoc, then, is a military order from the Middle Ages issued to soldiers ordering them to pillage and cause chaos.
“Dogs of war” is simply Shakespeare’s metaphor for soldiers.
The Origin of the Phrase
From The Black Book of the Admiralty, a collection of laws in French and Latin that relate to the organization of the English Navy written in 1385, we have:
Item, qe nul soit si hardy de crier havok sur peine davoir la test coupe.
From Grose’s History of the English Army, written in, 1525 we have:
Likewise be all manner of beasts, when they be brought into the field and cried havoke, then every man to take his part.
Shakespeare used the phrase “cry havoc” in several of his plays. As described above in Julius Caesar:
Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.
Once before that in King John, 1595:
Cry ‘havoc!’ kings; back to the stained field…
And once afterwards in Coriolanus, 1607:
Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt with modest warrant.
Today we hear “wreck,” “wreak” and “play” havoc (with), but rarely, if ever, “cry” havoc.