The Isle of Dogs (lost satirical play; 1597)

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Thomas Nashe, one of the playwrights who wrote the play

Status: Lost

Not to be confused with the stop-motion film of the same name, The Isle of Dogs was a satirical play that was written by English playwriters Thomas Nashe and Ben Johnson. The play was performed at Swan Theater in London in 1597, but after the performance of the play, many of the actors and writers who were associated with the play were subsequently jailed for sedition with no copy known to exist.


16th Century England saw a great deal of literature start to become translated and available in English. It started with the English translation of the Bible. As the medieval period shifted to the Renaissance, classical works of literature were rediscovered and translated into various languages. Playwrights started to write about these pieces of literature and place their own twists. Actors were drifters, but that all changed in 1559 when Queen Elizabeth I signed a royal decree that stated a license was required to perform plays. This, in turn, made acting a career. English theater had taken off, with William Shakespeare who wrote plays based on comedies, history, and tragedy. This laid the groundwork for other playwrights, actors, and poets to start using play companies to adapt their works to plays.[1]

The Isle of Dogs

In 1597, The Isle of Dogs was performed at the Swan Theater in London. The play was mainly written by the famous literary critic, Ben Johnson, but satirical playwright Thomas Nashe was brought on to help. The name The Isle of Dogs was most likely a jab to the Palace of Placentia where it is believed that Queen Elizabeth's dogs would be kennelled. It was also the place where the Queen's Privy Council met. It is not known what exactly the full play was about, because after the performance Ben Johnson, along with two actors, were imprisoned for sedition while Thomas Nashe's home was raided and the scripts for The Isle of Dogs were seized. Shortly after, the Sean Theater had to close for several months due to a plague outbreak.[2]

Ben Johnson was imprisoned multiple times after The Isle of Dogs due to his work. After his death in 1601, most of Ben Johnson's work was burnt and it is possible that any remnants of The Isle of Dogs was also burnt.[3]

Referenced in Other Works

The reaction to the play possibly had a profound effect on other playwrights and even Thomas Nashe himself. Many plays that were written and performed after reference the The Isle of Dogs.

  • Francis Meres in his 1598 play, Palladis Tamia states:

As Actæon was worried of his owne hounds: so is Tom Nash of his Isle of Dogs. Dogges were the death of Euripedes; but bee not disconsolate, gallant young Iuuenall, Linus, the sonne of Apollo died the same death.[4]

  • Thomas Nashe states the following in his 1599 play titled Nashes Lenten Stuffe states:

The straunge turning of the Ile of Dogs frõ a commedie to a tragedie two summers past, with the troublesome stir which hapned aboute it, is a generall rumour that hath filled all England, and such a heauie crosse laide vpon me, as had well neere confounded mee ...[5]

  • Thomas Dekker in his 1601 play titled Satiromastix states:

but thou putst vp a Supplication to be a poore Iorneyman Player, and hadft beene still so, but that thou couldst not set a good face vpon't: thou hast forgot how thou amblest by a play-wagon, in the high way, and took'st mad Ieronimoes part, to get seruice among the Mimickes: and when the Stagerites banisht thee into the Ile of Dogs, thou turn'dst Ban-dog and euer since bitest, therefore I aske if th'ast been at Parris-garden, because thou hast such a good mouth, thou baitst well ...[6]