A Great Dane Goes to the Dogs

Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Eileen Herlie as his mother, Gertrude, in Hamlet, 1948

My brother and I were never permitted to have pets of any kind, apart from a small turtle that I was given once on a trip to Florida and that my parents unaccountably allowed me to bring back home to Massachusetts. And even this modest and inoffensive creature, sloshing about in its bowl, was forced, on my mother’s command, to spend its nights not in my bedroom but on the screened-in porch. I suppose that my mother feared that somehow, in the middle of the night, the captive would scale the walls of its glass enclosure and strangle us in our beds.

The regimen must not have disagreed with the turtle, since it survived for some months. But when the fall came, and with it a sudden cold snap, I went out to the porch early one morning to find my little pet entirely encased in a block of ice. I rushed into the house and, not knowing what else to do, I put the whole bowl into the oven, at a low temperature. What occurred then was the only miracle—apart from life itself—that I have ever directly experienced: as the ice slowly melted, the turtle, at first rigid and immobile, unaccountably began to move. It had returned to this world from the dark kingdom whose threshold it had crossed.

The next night, of course, I repeated the sequence, promising myself a renewal of the resurrection, to be witnessed now, at my solemn invitation, by my brother. But this time the poor frozen turtle failed to revive. There were no more miracles and no more pets in my house.

Even outside the house, my parents shunned animals. Dogs were the objects of their particular aversion. Fearing them intensely, they communicated their anxiety to me, so that it took many years before I could relax and feel comfortable around them. In the presence of my friends’ dogs, I feigned an admiration and pleasure I did not actually feel, and eventually, as often happens, the feigning produced at least a shadow of the actual feeling. I met dogs that I recognized to be beautiful and lovable, but the love was always in truth someone else’s, not fully my own.

Nothing in my professional life as a scholar contrived to soften this personal distance.1 The artist on whose work I have spent the most time, Shakespeare, seems to have disliked dogs. About almost all other creatures in the world—horses, rabbits, even snails—he felt a deep, inward understanding, but with dogs his imagination curdled. As Caroline Spurgeon observed more than seventy years ago, in a landmark study of Shakespeare’s imagery,2 dogs function in his work almost entirely negatively. He can effortlessly catalog their types—

Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,

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