THE FOLLOWING EXCHANGE takes place in this engagingly offbeat short novel:
"I remebered once, talking with Will and him saying dogs were lower than the low, I'd pointed out even Aristotle had noted favorably the link between dog and man: how each shed his teeth similarly and had a single stomach, that daily required replenishment. "Who?" he'd said -- and take his pen to write it down. "Aristotle who? What's he done?""
Elsewhere the speaker remarks on the aphrodisiacal qualities of yams, contemplates the sou's immortality, mulls over the popular mythology of things that makes society want to burn those it proclaims witches, and offers a sure-fire remedy for consumption (hare's brain cooked in jelly or, failing that, lightly cooked cat dung). He knows that the shorter way to London from Stratford is by Oxford, and that the rat's flea transmits the plague. His name is Mr. Hooker. He bears no relation to the Richard Hooker who composed that magisterial masterpiece of Tudor prose, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, although he alludes to that Hooker and his book. This Hooker is Shakespeare's dog.
Although they say of him as he goes by, "hind legs dog and front part human," he does all the doggy things. He goes woof-woof and arf-arf, whines and rubs against leg, raises his leg to piddle almost anywhere, sniffs his clack-dish for nonexistent grub, licks at garbage, and couples with his steady bitch Marr of scraps bloodily with Wolfsleach, his amatory rival. Long-nosed and lean of haunch, Hooker is no thoroughbred; in the course of his wanderings he is referred to as mongrel, cur, and mutt. But Hooker is fiercely devoted to his Two Foot, and in one of the novel's bravura passages -- there are a number -- describes how, one wintry night, when his master slipped in a mud hole, banged his head, and tumbled into the Avon, he saved him from a watery death in the river's raging current. "I'll give you my best bed," Shakespeare cried as the waters swirled round them. When your life's up for grabs, you'll promise anything; Hooker had no faith in it. (In the end Shakespeare left his second-best bed to his wife; the best he failed to mention in his will.) On another occasion, Hooker comes chewing and clawing to the aid of the town witch, Moll Braxton, bound double-over by a howling mob. A righteous hound. Super-mutt.
Not that he is any holier-than-thou paragon of bow-wow virtue. Hooker is not above lusting after his own sister Terry -- "Who else had the better right." -- or bringing down a fallow deer in Chalfont Wood.He has been noticed burying a bone by Charlecote creek, where Sir Thomas Lucy's spread lay, and hopping home with deer meat between his jaws; the fuzzy fiber covered up in the Shakespeare garden has the density and coloration, the tangy scent, of deer. Word has gotten round. Black Shag and his squad of Regarders -- enforcers of the anti-poaching statutes -- close in on Hooker and his master. London beckons both irresistibly.
Canine fiction no doubt represents a literary byway. Shakespeare as a character in novels and plays is something of a specialty number too. Shakespeare's Dog is a crossroad where byways meet. When we meet him, the future glory of the English stage is 21, married to Anne Hathaway, the father of three, and without gainful employement. They live in his father's double house in Henley Street, the house that posterity would venerate as the Birthplace. Will has no head for the wool game (a Stratford staple), or for his father's craft of glovemaking, or for schoolmastering. Articled to the clerk of the borough, he has been sacked for scribbling verses when he should have been keeping law days and attending the assizes. "Oh, he's for art," his gentle mother Mary would say, while his father, down on his luck, mumbled in his ale. "This Avon's a pimple," Will rails at his wife. Except when he is bouncing his twins on his knees, or changing a diaper, he keeps upstairs, hammering out his verses. He dreams of making it big in London with the Queen's Men, one of the leading metropolitan troupes, and coming back one day with money in his pocket to buy New Place, the great house of brick and timber that now lies crumbling. His wife wants to keep him at home. She'll not take the children one step to London, to starve or die of the plague; yet she'd wither with her Will gone. In the end, amid hugging and kissing and hand-shaking, as neighbors whisper, "Hurry! Hurry! Before the Regarders come!", he is off with Hooker.
Hooker has his dreams too. He fantasizes himself as mascot to the Queen's Men, kneeling before the Queen at Court to declare himself Will the player's dog, sleeping on a soft pillow, or running through the streets to announce in loud bark, "The Tragedy of Hooker, in three full acts, by Wm. Shakespeare." Curiously, he doesn't dream of acting a doggy part in one of his master's plays, although Will would create a fine one. Dogs have achieved thespian immortality as the clown Launce's Crab, "the sourest-natured dog that lives," unwilling to shed a tear or say a word when his master leaves home in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Late in the 17th century an obscure clergyman, Richard Davies, noted down that Shakespeare was "much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir -- Lucy, who had him oft whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement." Other versions of this, the most famous of Shakespeare legends, filtered down. Eventually, artists fastened upon it for paintings and engravings, and writers for plays and novels. Sir Walter Scott alludes to the episode in his Kenilworth. Landor made much of it for one of his Imaginary Conversations; Washington Irving jotted down notes for a play about the deer stalking, and Shakespeare's seizure, escape, and adieu to Stratford. Nothing came of the idea, but in our own time William Gibson's drama on the same theme, A Cry of Players, is often revived, and next year will grace the University of Maryland's theater season.
If there is a better novel than Rooke's dealing with Shakespeare's early days I'm not aware of it, although in fairness I'd have to add that his competition isn't that formidable. He has a highly original conception, and his spokespooch is a feisty (as well as intellectual) hound, full of beans even when hungry, tail-wagging, at once irreverent and loyal, and more humane than some of his human counterparts, including, on one notable occasion Shakespeare himself. A remarkable act of imaginative outreach went into his creation.
On the biographical side, Rooke has done his homework, and it shows, although never obtrusively. Names places, and events familiar to the biographer make their entrance; complex issues, such as the circumstances of Shakespeare's marriage, are lightly but adroitly tackled. Never mind that the excursions into Elizabethan idiom don't always ring precisely true; this novel has its own verbal exhilaration. Through Hooker's eyes, 16th-century Stratford lives; Londontown too in the brief visionary evocation of the city of the old panoramas by Visscher and Hollar.
The author deserves to be better known here. A North Carolinian, Rooke now lives in British Columbia. His writings -- eight previous titles are listed -- have appeared mainly in Canada, where he has received more than one honor. Still, only one previous novel has been published in this country, Fat Woman, two years ago, about a day in the life of Ella Mae Hopkins, so ample that the flesh has swelled up like that of a Christmas turkey. It was well received in Book World. Maybe now we can look forward to others.