Jay Garrulus glandarius, Geai des chênes.

5 occurrences (3 jay, 1 jays, 1 jay's)

The jay may not have been common until the oak invaded Britain about 8000 years ago. It would then have been numerous, but decreased again as woodland was cleared. Strikingly variegated, especially in flight when the white and the pale blue wing patches and the white rump are conspicuous, the jay calls noisily as soon as a human or any large animal enters its forest area.

ARMSTRONG in Shakespeare's Imagination has devoted a whole chapter to the "Painted Jay" (Chap. 8, p. 66-71):

Shakespeare alludes to the gaudy colouring of the jay in the Taming of the Shrew. After the tailor has been sent off with Katherina's dress - of which she had said she "never saw a better fashion'd gown" - her husband gives her this barren consolation:

What, is the jay more precious than the lark,

Because his feathers are more beautiful?

Or is the adder better than the eel

Because his painted skin contents the eye?

(4 3 172-5)

In Cymbeline Imogen says of Iachimo,

Some jay of Italy

Whose mother was her painting, hath betray'd him.

At that period "jay" was a term for a wanton woman. Thus Mistress Ford says she will teach Falstaff "to know turtles from jays (WIV 3 3 37) [see DOVE].

The bird had long been synonymous with various unpleasant qualities. [...] Chaucer spoke of "the skornynge jay", (Parlement of Foulys, l 346) and Drayton called it "Carion Jay", (The Owle, 663) and "counterfetting Jay", (Polyolbion, Song xiii, 80). Spenser referred to "painted Iayes", (The Faerie Queene, II, viii, 5).

In four out of five contexts in which Shakespeare mentions the bird there is conversation about clothing. In two there are references to a snake, in two there are allusions to drunkenness or strong drink, and in yet other two there are thoughts of deception.


We noted the words "painted skin" and "whose mother was her painting" in these jay contexts. Paint, used in the sense of make-up, is mentioned with such distaste by Shakespeare and is so constantly brought into connexion with certain unpleasant ideas that it can hardly be doubted that it had an intense emotional significance for him.


Let us pass on to consider the odd and apparently arbitrary collection of the island's products which Caliban offered to show Trinculo - crab-apples, filberts, marmosets, scamels and a jay's nest. Why a jay's nest rather than the nest of a parrot or some other exotic bird more appropriately domiciled on such an isle? Why did not Caliban offer to reveal the nest of a species the flesh or eggs of which would be pleasant food for shipwrecked mariners? Any naturalistic explanation based on the fact that a jay's nest is usually well concealed and that the knowledge of its whereabouts reinforced Caliban's self-importance is founded upon misconceptions as to how Shakespeare's mind worked. As we have seen, the study of passages in which a somewhat arbitrary word or group of words occurs suggests that in such cases we should suspect some not fully conscious process rather than suppose that we are dealing with straightforward natural history.


[Caliban] offers to find a jay's nest because, for Shakespeare, it was a breeding-place of deceit, spite, vanity and lust. Shakespeare's birds and other creatures tend to have symbolical significance suited to the characters who mention them, the contexts they appear in, and [...] to the theme of the plays in which they appear.

ARMSTRONG sums up well the particularity of the jay's value in Shakespeare's work, all the while commenting on the perhaps excessively negative use Shakespeare makes of this over-determined bird.