Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, Coucou gris.

22 occurrences ( 19 cuckoo, 1 cuckoos, 1 cuckoo's, 1 cuckoo-birds)

According to James FISHER in his Shell Bird Book (1966), the cuckoo was first recorded in Britain by the Anglo-Saxon Saint Guthlac in 699 AD. Both its call and its habit of laying its eggs one by one in other birds' nests make it a very well known bird throughout our history. Each female targets one species whose eggs resemble her own. The young cuckoo hatching first relieves the bother of the other eggs by ejecting them from the nest, thus securing the undivided attention of its foster parents, as the young cuckoo is soon going to be much bigger than them. Hedge-sparrows (or dunnocks), cited twice in this context, are among the very regular hosts of the cuckoo.

This habit gave its name to the deceived husband, the cuckold, on whom, so to speak, the cuckoo's trick has been played. No wonder then, that Shakespeare makes considerable use of this bird to relate indirectly to infidelity.

TILLEY (C889) quotes Grange, Garden, 1577, s. R2: As Cuckoldes come by destinie, so Cuckowes sing by kind. In All's Well That Ends Well, after a dialogue on marriage where the word "cuckold" is mentioned in line 43, this little song is found:

For I the ballad will repeat

Which men full true shall find:

Your marriage comes by destiny,

Your cuckoo sings by kind.

(AWW 1 3 58-61)

Shakespeare reversed the proverb and makes full use of the echoing potential of "cuckold/cuckoo", as he does with the onomatopoeic quality of "cuckoo" in the final song of Love's Labour's Lost where "The cuckoo [...] on every tree/ Mocks married men":

When daisies pied and violets blue

And lady-smocks, all silver-white,

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

Do paint the meadows with delight.

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he:


Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,

And merry larks are ploughman's clocks,

When turtles tread, and rooks and daws,

And maidens bleach their summer smocks,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,


Cuckoo, cuckoo; O word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

(5 2 886-903)

Not only is "cuckoo" repeated eight times, but it is introduced in the landscape with a plant: "cuckoo-buds of yellow hue" and accompanied by many other bird species, as often in Shakespeare's songs.

Again in The Merchant of Venice, about the song of the cuckoo:

He knows me as the blind man knows the cuckoo -

By the bad voice.

(5 1 112-3)

Apart from the "bad voice", the cuckoo was granted a bad reputation, SEAGER quotes Hortus Sanitatis (1490-1517 bk. iii, chap. 34):

The cuckoo is a dishonest bird, and is very slow, and does not stay in a place. In winter it is said to lose its feathers; and it enters a hole in the earth or hollow trees.

Worst of all, worse than cuckoldry, is the ingratitude towards one's parents, symbolized by the attitude of the young cuckoo towards the poor hedge-sparrow (or dunnock). This logically finds its place in King Lear:

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

That it's had it head bit off by it young.

(1 4 213-4)