Carrion Crow Corvus corone corone, Corneille noire.

36 occurrences ( 20 crow, 16 crows)

The crow is able to use both woodland and open country, it would have been widespread from the first, but over recent centuries has been killed with increased success on farmland. It is the equivalent of the raven in less mountainous and less forested areas. HARTING comments that:

So closely indeed, does he resemble the raven upon a slightly modified scale, that we might also fancy him: "a crow a'th' same nest" (AWW 4 3 277).

"As black as a crow" is listed by TILLEY (C844) as a proverb:

Cypress black as e'er was crow

(WT 4 4 221)

But Shakespeare seldom refers to "black" separately, that is without "white" close by to give the contrast. Indeed in the song by Autolycus quoted above, the preceding verse was: "Lawn as white as driven snow" (4 4 220). HARTING comments on Autolycus's song that:

Here we have not only the crow contrasted with snow, but also cyprus, a thin transparent black stuff, somewhat like crape, placed in contradistinction with lawn, which is a white material, like muslin.

The crow can be thus contrasted with white birds; swan and dove are found three times each within a ten line context of crow:

The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature.

(SON 113.12)

Shakespeare makes full use of the symbolic value of this contrast which takes on the aspect of a moral fable:

The crow may bathe his coal-black wings in mire,

And unperceiv'd fly with the filth away;

But if the like the snow-white swan desire,

The stain upon his silver down will stay.

(LUC 1009-12)

Another proverb (TILLEY, C853) is: "He will say the crow is white". Shakespeare has:

With dove of Paphos might the crow

Vie feathers white.

(PER 4 ch 32-3)

Among other improbabilities of the sort, the image of the bird devoid of feathers is striking and recurrent: "moulten raven" (1H4 3 1 146). Shakespeare plays with this idea and others about an upside-down world where "fowls have no feathers, and fish have no fin". The "crow" itself is either the bird or a crowbar in this farcical dialogue:


Here's too much 'Out upon thee!' I pray thee, let me in.


Ay, when fowls have no feathers, and fish have no fin.


Well, I'll break in. - Go borrow me a crow.


A crow without feather? Master, mean you so?

For a fish without a fin, there's a fowl without a feather.

(To Dromio of Syracuse)

If a crow help us in, sirrah, we'll pluck a crow together.


Go, get thee gone. Fetch me an iron crow.

(ERR 3 1 78-84)

The last part of the bird/crowbar quibble rests on a proverbial saying "I have a Crow to pluck with you" (TILLEY, C855) which meant to settle a quarrel.

Again in The Phoenix and Turtle, "swan" is in the stanza that precedes "crow", and colour plays its role with white / sable. But here, the old beliefs associated with crows appear. SEAGER cites Holland's Pliny (vii, 48) where an explanation for "treble-dated" can be found: "Hesiodus saith forsooth, that the crow liveth nine times as long as we". "With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st" can be traced to Hortus Sanitatis (Bk. iii, § 34) quoted by SEAGER:

They are said to conceive and lay their eggs at the bill. The young become black on the seventh day.

Let the priest in surplice white

That defunctive music can,

Be the death-divining swan,

Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,

That thy sable gender mak'st

With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,

'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

(PHT 13-20)

Above all, the crow is the meanest carrion bird, even the ravens and kites, in their own way and in the eyes of Shakespeare, retain something of the majesty of the large birds of preys, the crow is base and mediocre:

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

(MND 2 1 96-7)

In his edition, H. F. BROOKS explains that "the 'murrion flock' are 'murrained': victims of sheep-plague".

Iden, addressing the dead body of Cade, whom he has just killed on the stage, says with utmost scorn:

Hence will I drag thee headlong by the heels

Unto a dunghill, which shall be thy grave,

And there cut off thy most ungracious head,

Which I will bear in triumph to the King,

Leaving thy trunk for crows to feed upon.

(2H6 4 10 79-83)

The crow is the symbol of battle-fields, after the battle:

I'th' city of kites and crows.

(COR 4 5 43)

(See KITE)

In the third act of Cymbeline (Sc.1), when Caius Lucius, the Roman Ambassador, comes to demand tribute from the British king, he is met with a flat refusal, and Cloten, one of the lords in waiting, deriding his threat of war, says:

(HARTING, p. 112)

His majesty bids you welcome. Make pastime with

us a day or two, or longer: if you seek us afterwards in

other terms, you shall find us in our salt-water girdle:

if you beat us out of it, it is yours: if you fall in the

adventure, our crows shall fare the better for you: and

there's an end.

(CYM 3 2 78-83)

But "crow" can also be found in less menacing contexts, when alluding to the "crow-keepers" or the "scarecrows" not listed here:

That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper:

(LR 4 6 88)

The scarecrow that affright our children so.

(1H6 1 4 42)