22 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!

  • 12 Michael Dominguez // Feb 9, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Shakespeare meant canines. Dogs were bred to fight in battle, attacking men and horses throughout the Roman empire and Europe in general. Rottweilers and the modern mastiff breeds are descended from them.
    There are two commands in this quote; “cry havoc,” i.e. attack men and “let slip,” i.e. let loose the attack dogs.

  • 13 Paul Z. // Feb 15, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    It is my understanding that “cry havoc” is used to express an emotion as to what is surely and shortly to come. To “cry” out in a way that expresses the fortitude of ones courage, and “havoc” a reminder that there is much to be gained in their upcoming struggle. A very motivating phrase when used in the right moment.

    “Let slip the dogs of war,” could have many different meanings depending on who utters it and who hears it. Are they bloodthirsty beasts, money hungry mercenaries, or well trained soldiers fighting for a cause in which they truly believe? Either way, a highly motivational speech from a highly revered leader of men.

  • 14 Jan Grahame // Apr 28, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Let slip the dogs OF war would refer to a ravening beast-whether man or dog, it is not important. If Shakespeare had been referring to some type of restraint, as in the nauticle sense of “dogging a hatch” then he would have used the grammatically correct “let slip the dogs ON war.

  • 15 Al Legato // Apr 29, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    When Julius Caesar invaded Britannia in 55 B.C., his troops encountered the Britons and their Mastiffs fighting alongside them. (not Bullmastiff, a much later crossbreed with Bulldogs) The Romans were impressed by the size, courage and loyalty of these dogs and took many to Rome for blood sports. It is said that Kublai Khan had 5000 large dogs that were used for war. Hannibal also used many large dogs in his campaigns. Probably Molossers, the common ancestor of most giant dogs today.

    So, it would be completely understandable for Shakespeare to use the phrase both literally and allegorically, as was his wont.

  • 16 Tim Haslett // Jun 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    The reference is to slipping or releasing a hunting greyhound. The dog is “slipped” when the quarry is disturbed.

  • 17 Dennis Carr // Jun 27, 2014 at 8:27 am

    HELLO, steve. five years later your still blaming Bush?? +++ Obama sent more people into Afghanistan and has ordered the killing of American Citizens without trial.. Today more men are going into Iraq and Drones are in the air.. Obama did not ask Congress if he could do this.. Another Executive Order, wait till it is your turn to be under the axe..

    “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.”

  • 18 Simon // Jul 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Dogs were used in war, perhaps less so by the English. The conquistadores arrived in the Americas with them and created a great impression. You can see them in various paintings.

  • 19 Ant-Agonist // Sep 5, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    I think people are looking at this in a far too literal sense I believe Shakespeare’s play uses it in the following context.

    Caesar is dead, there is no heir apparent so Anthony describes the turmoil that is about to descend upon the Roman empire.

    Caesar looking on from the afterlife would have a sense of smug pride knowing what was about to unfold and ‘cries’ “Havoc!” The dogs of war are not k9’s they are not machinery they are the ‘dogs’ (derogatory term) who betrayed him, and who will fight for the right to rule.

    The quote is similar in fashion to one attributed to Alexander The Great, who on his death bed was asked who he would leave his empire to. He replied “The Strongest”. Meaning the man who fights and claims victory shall receive his reward.

    Of course this is all open to interpretation but in my mind the ‘Dogs of War’ are Brutus and Cassius.

    Modern interpretation is a bit different, the US army refer to themselves as the dogs of war, typical hero syndrome which the US has an abundance of.

    There is also the literal use of ‘letting a dog slip’ to unleash a dog.

    Really depends on which reference you are looking to define.

  • 20 Basil // Oct 13, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    All the comments posted are very enlightening. That’s S for you!
    This phrase came to mind while watching CNN news footage on ISIS rampaging through Iraq and Syria tonight

  • 21 Jocelyn // Apr 16, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    Surely S meant soldiers. He likened them to dogs in Henry V “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. “

  • 22 John // Jan 25, 2018 at 6:44 am

    Whether real “dogs of war” were a thing or not is missing the point. The image of savage dogs slavering and straining at the leash would have raised the hairs on the back of his 16th century audience, as much as it does to us today.

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