Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, Aigle royal;

or White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, Pygargue à queue blanche.

40 occurrences (23 eagle, 10 eagles, 4 eagle's, 1 eagles', 1 eagle-sighted, 1 eagle-winged)

It is the white-tailed eagle (see VULTURE) that became part of Norse and Saxon legends through its attendance at battlefields. But the golden eagle with its elusive habits and mountainous habitat is the standard against which all other birds of prey are measured, and carries more positive values. In particular when it is identified with the Roman eagle whose natural counterpart must be the Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca, Aigle impérial. Its presence is always a good omen, one of victory for the empire:

now I change my mind,

And partly credit things that do presage.

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign

Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch'd,

Gorging and feeding from our soldiers' hands,

Who to Philippi here consorted us.

This morning are they fled away and gone,

And in their steads do ravens, crows, and kites

Fly o'er our heads and downward look on us,

As we were sickly prey. Their shadows seem

A canopy most fatal, under which

Our army lies ready to give the ghost.

(JC 5 1 78-89)

The evolution here from the "mighty eagles" confident enough to trust the soldiers, to the "ravens, crows, and kites" that look at them as if they were "sickly preys" is striking. There is a morbid irony in this situation where the soldiers who feed the eagles could end as food for the crows. It illustrates vividly Cassius' change of mood. The bad omens can be traced back to North's Plutarch:

When they raised their camp, there came two eagles that, flying with marvellous force, lighted upon two of the foremost ensigns, and always followed the soldiers, which gave them meat and fed them, until they came near to the city of Philippes: and there, one day only before the battle, they both flew away.


Notwithstanding, [...] it is reported that there chanced certain unlucky signs unto Cassius. [...] The which began somewhat to alter Cassius' mind from Epicurus' opinions, and had put the soldiers also in a marvellous fear. (Life of Brutus, in Appendix A of the Arden Julius Caesar, p. 159)

These bad omens were "a garland of flowers turned backward", "an image of Cassius' victory" that fell by chance, "a marvellous number of fowls of prey, that feed upon dead carcases" and "bee-hives" in the camp. Shakespeare chose to retain only the birds, that could provide him with a continuity in the imagery, in order to give us an insight of the state of Cassius' mind.

The eagle stands apart among birds, especially birds of prey. This is very clear when the birds are gathered in the first stanzas of The Phoenix, in the manner of Chaucer's Parlement of Foulys:

From this session interdict

Every fowl of tyrant wing

Save the eagle, feather'd king.


This "feather'd king" was endowed with many qualities that suited its rank:

Among all manner kinds of divers fowls, the Eagle is the more liberal and free of heart; for the prey that he taketh, but it be for great hunger she eateth not alone, but putteth it forth in common to fowls that follow her; but first she taketh her own portion and part. And therefore oft other fowls follow the Eagle for hope and trust to have some part of her prey. But when the prey is taken, is most sufficient to herself, then as a king that taketh heed of a commonty [common people], he taketh the bird that is next to him, and giveth it away the other, and serveth them therewith. (SEAGER, quoting Batman uppon Bartholomew, Bk. 12 § 17)

The eagle was said to be able to look straight at the sun:

There myghte men the ryal egle fynde,

That with his sharpe lok persith the sunne,

(Chaucer's Parlement of Foulys, l. 330-1)

Only the Eagle can gaze at the sun


And then Shakespeare:

Nay, if thou be that princely eagle's bird,

Show thy descent by gazing 'gainst the sun:

(3H6 2 1 91-2)

In Love's Labour Lost this metaphor is used twice, the second echoing the first, and its impact is thus reinforced:

What peremptory eagle-sighted eye

Dares look upon the heaven of her brow,

That is not blinded by her majesty?

(4 3 222-4)

It adds a precious seeing to the eye;

A lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind;

A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound,

(4 3 329-31)

Auceps, the falconer in Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler, (Chap. 1) praising his hawks, says:

... in the Air my troops of Hawks soar up on high, and when they are lost in the sight of men, then they attend upon and converse with the Gods; therefore I think my Eagle is so justly styled Jove's servant in ordinary:

This helps us to understand the reason why Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, writes about:

CYM 4 2 348 I saw Jove's bird, the Roman eagle, wing'd

CYM 5 5 428 Great Jupiter, upon his eagle back'd,

The eagle imagery is used to its utmost in Cymbeline. J.M. NOSWORTHY, in his introduction to the Arden edition (p. lxxiii) explains:

Posthumus is represented as an eagle. He is so termed by Imogen in I. ii, and the analogy is reinforced by such remarks as that of the Frenchman, that 'he could behold he sun' with firm eyes. The fact that the eagle has other significances within the framework of the play does not diminish the force of this particular symbol, and it can be argued that these, too, are relevant to Posthumus since the eagle imagery usually bears some relation to his presence or to his values, while Jove's eagle itself is private in the sense that it belongs only to his vision. Whether this is so or not scarcely matters. The parallel between Posthumus, the 'noble lord', and the eagle, the lord among birds would have been immediately grasped by Shakespeare's audience, however considerable the degree of obscuring details.

The powerful vision of the eagle has its adjective "eagle-sighted" (LLL 4 3 222), and so has the powerful flight of the eagle: "eagle-winged (R2 1 3 129). Shakespeare describes its flight:

But flies an eagle flight, bold and forth on,

Leaving no track behind.

(TIM 1 1 49)

HARTING quotes Spenser's Faerie Queene (Bk. 5, iv. 42) depicting "the grandeur of an eagle on the wing".

Like to an eagle in his kingly pride

Soring thro' his wide empire of the aire

To weather his brode sailes.

Shakespeare associates more closely "pride" and "eagle" in a superb metaphor:

And for we think the eagle-winged pride

Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts,

(R2 1 3 129-30)

The conscious superiority of the eagle is expressed by a proverb that says that "the Eagle does not catch flies" (TILLEY, E1) and Shakespeare expresses this in:

This was but as a fly by an eagle:

(ANT 2 2 181)

Or in:

Is the sun dimm'd, that gnats do fly in it?

The eagle suffers little birds to sing,

And is not careful what they mean thereby,

Knowing that with the shadow of his wings

He can at pleasure stint their melody;

(TIT 4 4 82-6)

All the elements of Shakespeare's eagle imagery are gathered: the sun, the flight, the majestic magnanimity of the eagle king and its political connotations, not always devoid of threat.