The Birds of Shakespeare
February 4, 2006 9:16 AM   Subscribe

The Birds of Shakespeare No, not Juliet and Ophelia. "The eagle is cited some forty times. The two birds of this kind native to Britain [are] the golden eagle and the white-tailed or sea-eagle. [Shakespeare] may have occasionally seen…[eagles] on the wing, though his allusions hardly suggest any personal familiarity with the birds. Recognizing the lofty rank of the eagle and its acknowledged dignity above the other birds of prey, he makes the birds themselves, in the arrangements for the obsequies of the Phoenix and Turtle, admit this supremacy."
posted by feelinglistless (5 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
... I'm sorry I've been watching 'Life on Mars'.
posted by feelinglistless at 9:34 AM on February 4, 2006

There was that goofball who decided to import all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare to America. The starlings became invasive pests. (Although it was always pretty amazing when they would migrate through Providence RI when I was living there.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2006

This is really cool- I just finished 'The Tragedy of King Richard the Third', and I repeatedly noted in the margins: 'eagle.' 'birds'. 'bird again. why gulls?' 'wrens eagles kites buzzards.' all over the place.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:40 AM on February 4, 2006

The repeated references to eagles probably had something to do with the Ptolemaic system -- the hierarchy of spheres; i.e., heaven and hell both occupying physical locations in a finite universe. This pattern was thought to be repeated in the animal kingdom. Man was at the top of a "chain of being." An eagle was thought to have had the same kind of status among birds as a king among men, thus reinforcing God's natural order and helping to enforce to king's right to rule.

“Yet looks he like a king; behold! His eye,
As bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth
Controlling majesty.” [ Richard II – III, 3]

It's interesting to note that although Richard may have "looked like a king" at this point in the play, standing on the ramparts of Flint Castle, he in fact had no real authority left and was about to be deposed by Henry IV.
posted by meh at 10:16 AM on February 4, 2006

Yeah, it's got little to do with Shakespeare's personal experience (whatever that was), and everything to do with Elizabethan emblematic thinking. Eagles=royalty; kites=factious or dangerous elements within the realm -- that kind of thing.

Anyone interested in Shakespeare's image schemes should dig out some of the stuff written on the subject by Kenneth Muir or Caroline Spurgeon.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:41 PM on February 5, 2006

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