“The cat will mew, and dog will have its day.” So wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (1600-1601). The dog he had in mind, according to Leon Rooke’s short novel Shakespeare’s Dog, is Mr. Hooker, young Will Shakespeare’s very own companion, confidant, and (according to the dog), better self. In this four-part work, Hooker recounts his and Will’s last days in Stratford before Shakespeare made the final decision to leave wife and children and find his way to London, there to follow his destiny in the theater. By telling the story from the dog’s point of view, Rooke does, of course, run the risk of gimmickry, and at times Shakespeare’s Dog lapses into a kind of inspired silliness. The narrative approach, however, works more often than not, largely because Hooker is anything but cute, and the world he describes is a rough, bawdy, and mean place. Moreover, a dog’s view of life is rarely sentimental or coy. Thus, the dog’s story is an effective way to demythologize Shakespeare, one of the loftiest and removed of figures.
According to Hooker, who speaks (or writes—the method of communication is never completely clear) in a remarkably inventive approximation of the Elizabethan tongue, the Shakespeare of Stratford is a rather callow young man who sits alone in his upper room writing of romance: “Love this and Flower that and other such juvenile twaddle,” as Hooker scornfully puts it. Hooker belittles Will’s fascination with the ideal at the expense of the realities of life. Shakespeare sequesters himself and writes of his imaginary “dark lady” while his wife, Anne Hathaway, bawls away at him to come down to change the baby’s diaper or see to some other everyday necessity of the household. “Art is life, and life’s art,” Hooker observes, a point Shakespeare himself has yet to learn.
More important, from Hooker’s standpoint, is Will’s failure to see beneath the surface of life, to search for the deeper, darker meaning or lack thereof. His “Two-Foot” master lectures him on a dog’s place in the world by reference to the Chain of Being, never questioning the philosophy behind its concept. “Will was strict in his conformity,” Hooker notes, and he considers it his duty to teach Shakespeare the complexities of man. Hooker also challenges Will’s rather complacent acceptance of a society that the dog sees as fundamentally unfair. His young master, Hooker says, “would rattle no sword at another man’s destiny, for all was fair and desirable in his mind’s realm: the sop hated equality.” This, the dog sees, is a grievous fault in a writer, “for what worth was a scribbler if his weight was not put in with the long march of impugned humanity?”
Hooker, clearly, is a dog with a philosophical turn of mind. Although he acknowledges, with some degree of shame, that “dog will be dog,” he is nevertheless a dog wiser than the common run of animal. The people of Stratford recognize him as he roams the streets. “There goes Hooker,” they say, “hind legs dog and front part human.” His fellow dogs also remark on his difference. “You’ve gone round the bend. You’ve turned against dog. Next, we know, you’ll be wearing pants. You’ll be scribbling too.”
Hooker tries to be understanding of his fellow creatures, whether they be man or dog. When, approached under guise of friendship, he is struck by a dirty urchin, Hooker feels not anger but “sorrow at his situation in life, plus his psychology,” and would rather bite the “rich arm” that deprives the boy of a better life than the boy himself. Hooker sees the result...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)