Today I’d like to talk about one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comic characters, the foolish constable Dogberry! I wanted to talk a bit about who Dogberry is, and why his character continues to make people laugh today.
First of all, let me explain the name: A Dogberry is the fruit of the dogwood tree. They were called “Dogberries” in the 1590s because they were considered cheap, or “fit for a dog.” Dogberry’s flea-bitten reputation seems to stem from the nature of his job as a constable; a profession that the majority of people in England didn’t respect.
Dogberry is a constable who works for the local Justice Of the Peace in Messina. Messina. He unwittingly discovers the plot to slander Hero and captures Boraccio and Conrad, making it possible for Claudio to re-unite with Hero, and everyone to live happily ever after.
- Constables like Dogberry were unpaid officials who were periodically selected from the local population. They had no formal training in law enforcement, and their main job was to clear away drunks, close up shops, and keep control of crowds during public events. This is why when The Watch asks questions to Dogberry about what to do when they catch offenders, Dogberry can’t really suggest anything:
- This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the prince’s name.
- SECOND WATCHMAN
- How if a’ will not stand?
- Why, then, take no note of him, but let him go; and
- presently call the rest of the watch together and
- thank God you are rid of a knave (Much Ado, Act III, Scene iii).
- Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights seem to have a low opinion of constables, since Shakespeare consistently gives them derogatory like “Dogberry” in Much Ado or “Constable Dull” in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Playwright Thomas Dekker in his prose work, The Gulls’ Horn Book (1609) lampoons the ineffectiveness of British constables, saying that: “All that are chosen Constables for their wit go not to heaven.” Dekker goes on to mention how one may get by a constable or a watch during a late night by pretending to be French:
If you smell a watch (and that you may easily doe, for commonly they eate onions to keep them in sleeping, which they account a medicine against cold) or if you come within danger of their browne bils, let him that is your candlestick, and holds up your torch from dropping, let Ignis Fatuus, I say, being within the reach of the Constables staffe, aske aloud, “Sir Giles, or Sir Abram, will you turne this way, or downe that streete ?” The watch will winke at you, onely for the love they beare to armes and knighthood: mary, if the Centinell and his court of Guard stand strictly upon his martiall Law and cry “Stand!”, commanding you to give the word, and to shew reason why your Ghost walkes so late, doe it in some Jest (for that will shew you have a desperate wit, and perhaps make him and his halberdiers afraid to lay fowle hands upon you). Or, if you read a mittimus (warrant) in the Constables booke, counterfeit to be a Frenchman, a Dutchman, or any other nation whose country is in peace with your owne ; and you may passe the pikes: for beeing not able to understand you, they cannot by the customes of the Citie take your examination, and so by consequence they have nothing to say to you (Reprinted from Renaissance Editions.com).
Dogberry’s lack of wit is made painfully obvious by his use of malapropisms (using words in the wrong sense). Like George W. Bush, Dogberry not only mispronounces words, (saying “vigitant” when he means “vigilant,”) he also will use exactly the wrong word when communicating an idea. Some have suspected that Dogberry has a large volcabulary of words whose he doesn’t understand, and that he uses these big words in order to sound like he is the smartest person onstage. Perhaps this is his attempt to try and justify his place as the constable of the watch, which the city fathers only gave him through random selection.
One particularly funny example of Dogberry’s use of malapropism occurs when Conrad calls Dogberry an ass in Act IV, and Dogberry angily defends himself: “Dost thou not suspect my place, Dost thou not suspect my years?” (Much Ado, IV,ii, 2052). Although Dogberry means “respect,” after listening to his constant malaprops, we the audience respect him less and suspect him much more (of idiocy).
Verges is Dogberry’s partner, sometimes referred to as a ‘headborough,’ or ‘petty constable.’ His name “Verges” comes from the Middle French “rod or wand of office,” which in term comes from the Latin virga. Its earliest attested sense in English is now-obsolete meaning: “male member, penis” (Source: Online Etymology- Dictionary.com). Shakespeare probably knew this dirty meaning of Verges’ name, and might have chuckled a bit as he slapped the foolish constable’s assistant with a name that pokes fun at the source of his manly… authority.
Like Dogberry, Verges is an unpaid officer appointed to keep the peace for a small church community. He is Dogberry’s immediate inferior, which makes him the butt of Dogberry’s jokes:
DOGBERY: Goodman Verges, sir, speaks a little off the matter: an old man, sir, and his wits are not so blunt as, God help, I would desire they were; but, in faith, honest as the skin between his brows.
VERGES: Yes, I thank God I am as honest as any man living that is an old man and no honester than I (III, v, 1592-1596).
Although Dogberry calls Verges old, nothing in the play indicates how old he is. In fact, these remarks are probably just Dogberry’s attempt just to make himself look superior to Verges yet, as the earlier passage indicates, Dogberry might well be as old or even older than Verges.
Verges never complains about Dogberry’s abuse, and agrees with nearly everything he says. The two form a partnership that can best be described as ‘the blind leading the blind,’ in that neither one has any idea how to be an effective officer.
Seeing this kind of comic relationship onstage is one reason why Dogberry and Verges are such endearing characters. They clearly care about their jobs (perhaps too much), and although they have little training and even less education, they manage to suceede in catching two dangerous criminals and saving the day so that everyone else can repair their broken hearts and get married. Boraccio, the criminal that the two constables catch, pays them the highest compliment when he is brought before the Prince and Count Claudio:
“What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (Much Ado, Act V, Scene i)