The dogs of war (phrase)

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For other uses, see The Dogs of War.

In English, the dogs of war is a phrase from Act 3, Scene 1, line 273 of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war". Dog has its ordinary meaning; havoc is a military order permitting the seizure of spoil after a victory and let slip is to release from the leash.[1][2][3] Shakespeare's source for Julius Caesar was The Life of Marcus Brutus from Plutarch's Lives and the concept of the war dog appears in that work, in the section devoted to the Greek warrior Aratus.[4][5]

Apart from the literal meaning, parallels have been drawn with the prologue to Henry V, where the warlike king is described as having at his heels, awaiting employment, the hounds "famine, sword and fire".[6]

An alternative interpretation may be the simpler declarative (dependent on the preceding phrase 'let slip'- referring to the act of releasing) a 'dog' (in its mechanical sense) thereby leading to a state of war through issuing the figurative cry of "Havoc".

Among scholars of English literature, however, the consensus is that Mark Antony's "the dogs of war" does not literally refer to dogs, but figuratively to the wild pack of soldiers "unleashed" by the commander's order to wreak "general havoc", i.e., rape, pillage, and plunder.[7][8]

Victor Hugo refers to the "dogs of war" as a simile for cannon fire in chapter XIV of Les Misérables e.g.; "Another cannonade was audible at some distance. At the same time that the two guns were furiously attacking the redoubt from the Rue de la Chanvrerie, two other cannons, trained one from the Rue Saint-Denis, the other from the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, were riddling the Saint-Merry barricade. The four cannons echoed each other mournfully. The barking of these sombre dogs of war replied to each other."

The phrase has now so far entered into general usage, in books, music, film and television, that it is now regarded as a cliché.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "dog, n1 1(d); havoc, n". Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. "esp[ecially] in Shakespearian phr[ase] the dogs of war" 
  2. ^ From the fourteenth century an unauthorised call to "havoc" during battle was punishable by death. Keen, Maurice (1995). "Richard II's Ordinances of War of 1385". In Archer, Rowena; Walker, Simon. Rulers and Ruled in Late Medieval England: Essays Presented to Gerald Harriss. London: Hambledon Press. pp. 33, 36. ISBN 1-85285-133-3. 
  3. ^ Bate, Jonathan (2007). "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar". William Shakespeare Complete Works. Rasmussen, Eric. London: Macmillan. p. 1834. "unleash" 
  4. ^ Bate (2007: 1803)
  5. ^ Lives Volume XX, chapter 24, in the Bernadotte Perrin translation
  6. ^ Cornwall, Barry (1843). The Works of Shakspere, Revised 2. London: Robert Tyas. p. 518. OCLC 57461190. 
  7. ^ The Phrase Finder - "Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!"
  8. ^ Peter Pappas, "Shakespeare for All Time" blog. "Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War".
  9. ^ Partridge, Eric (1940). A Dictionary of Clichés. London: Routledge. p. 253. OCLC 460036269. 

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of cry havoc at Wiktionary