Today is National Talk like Shakespeare Day!
The Bard died on April 23rd when he was only 52 (and lest you think this was a ripe old age in the 16th century, many people did live into their 80’s).
To honor the playwright, poet and actor, people are encouraged to speak like a Shakespearean character, but if you think this is silly, you should know that you may already have spoken like a Shakespearean character without knowing it. Have you ever found yourself in a dilemma and told someone you’re “in a pickle?” The expression comes from The Tempest. To “wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve” comes from Othello, while a “wild-goose chase” is out of Romeo and Juliet. A few more: “Eaten me out of house and home” (Henry IV, Part II), “Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It), “Flesh and blood” (Hamlet), to come “full circle” (King Lear)….
Had enough? Well, “good riddance” to that paragraph (and “good riddance” appeared in Troilus and Cressida).
William Shakespeare used the word “dog” over two hundred times in his works, and nearly all his references to canines seemed to be insults. He also mentioned certain breeds, and you can read more about that here. In this post, we’re touching upon one of the breeds he mentioned: “Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-ear’d cur of Iceland.” It’s from “Henry V, Act II, Scene I,” and it is, of course, a reference to Iceland’s only native dog, the Icelandic Sheepdog.
One may wonder how a 16th century writer from England came to know about a breed from a country over a thousand miles away, but in Shakespeare’s time, Icelandic Sheepdogs had already been mentioned in the writings and travel logs of naturalists. By the time Shakespeare was six years old, the prominent physician, John Caius, had noted that Icelandic Sheepdogs were a favorite among the British aristocracy, and in 1576, the English clergyman, Abraham Fleming, wrote in his treatise, Of English Dogges, the Diversities, the Names, the Natures and the Properties: “Iceland dogs, curled and rough all over, which, by reason of the length of their hair, make show of neither face nor of body. And yet these curs, forsooth, because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and made of, so many times, instead of the spaniel gentle or comforter.”
The translator and British satirist, Thomas Brown, wrote that Icelandic Sheepdogs were exported to Britain as pets but were also greatly valued by sheep farmers there: “To England there are sometimes exported from Iceland a type of dog resembling a fox. Shepherds in England are eager to acquire them!” This is in line with Mark Watson’s short history of the breed: “When the English had most of the trade with Iceland during the fiftieth century [sic – he must have meant the 15th century] they sought out good looking Iceland Dog puppies, which at that time were the favorite chamber dogs for English ladies.”
The Swedish scholar, Olaus Magnus, also wrote about the dogs’ popularity in the 16th century, and their exportation to England where the breed became popular among the upper class, priests, and madams. Little wonder, then, that Shakespeare mentioned the breed in his play,“Henry V” – it was not that an unusual a breed in 16th century England.
In parting (which is “such sweet sorrow”), a reminder that on July 18th, Iceland celebrates Icelandic Sheepdog Day!
Image: Icelandic Sheepdogs by © Slowmotiongli/Dreamstime