Red Kite Milvus milvus, Milan royal.

18 occurrences (7 as kite, 10 as kites, 1 as hell-kite).

Puttock: vernacular term meaning either kite or buzzard.

3 occurrences.

As in one instance (2H6 3 2 190) there is no doubt that Shakespeare used it for kite, puttock is classified along with kite.

Though now one of the most endangered bird species in Great Britain, the Red Kite was once among the most common birds of prey. Before the sixteenth century they had been protected because, as they are partly scavengers, they had an essential hygienic role, playing the role vultures still play in many African towns. It was only after the 1662 plague that the urban authorities organized the cleaning of streets and the selling of manure to farmers.

Thus started the campaign against puttocks because they were a menace to poultry. After nearly four centuries of persecution kites were reduced to a few pairs in Scotland and Wales, only to be reintroduced in the 1980s.

But at the end of the fifteenth century they were so numerous that the Venetian Ambassador Capello, quoted by THOMAS, wrote in his Journal that in London,

the kites [...] are so tame, that they often take out of the hands of little children, the bread smeared with butter, in the Flemish fashion, given to them, by their mothers.

William Turner in his Avium praecipuarum (1544) also mentions how the kites would swoop down and snatch food out of children's hands. It is therefore easy to understand how difficult it was "to guard the chicken from a hungry kite" (2H6 3 1 249). Kites are shown to be interested in every kind of fowl:

Who finds the partridge in the puttock's nest

But may imagine how the bird was dead,

Although the kite soar with unbloodied beak?

(2H6 3 2 190-2)

As kites have a habit of garnishing their nests with every interesting material they can find, Autolycus warns: "When the kite builds, look to lesser linen" (WT 4 3 23).

The kite does not only look for "lesser linen" it looks for carrion. The battlefield is then a privileged setting: "And made a prey for carrion kites and crows" (2H6 5 2 11). In Coriolanus it is alluded to in: "I'th' city of kites and crows" (COR IV 05 43, repeated in 44).

We can see here how Shakespeare makes use of these birds to create the atmosphere previously described by Plutarch, his main source for Coriolanus, in his Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus as: "a sore infected cittie and pestilent ayer, full of dead bodies unburied" (Translation of Plutarch's Lives of Noble Grecians and Romanes by Thomas North (1579), quoted by P. BROCKBANK, editor of the Arden Coriolanus, appendix, p. 329).

The gruesome sight of the battlefields is the main reason for the kite's long-dated bad reputation. This reputation evolved with time to become a symbol of cowardice; Chaucer referred to "the coward kyte" in The Parlement of Foulys (l 349). Kite when used by Antony (ANT 3 13 89) and Lear (LR 1 4 260) is an opprobrious term. It is therefore not surprising to find it associated with crows and ravens. These species are found 9 times out of the 21 occurrences of kites and puttocks within a ten-line context.

The lowly status of the kite finds another root in falconry: Turberville in his The Booke of Faulconrie or Hawking (1575) describes kites as: "base, bastardly, refuse, hawks."

When Petruchio, in his soliloquy, unveils his plan to "tame" Katherina he uses all the technical terms a falconer would use to describe the important part of falconry which is the taming.

That is, to watch her as we watch these kites

That bate and beat and will not be obedient.

(SHR 4 1 182-3)

Being not obedient, they are useless for falconry purposes. Dover Wilson also suggested a possible pun on Kate/kite.

If one way to make dramatic use of the low status of kites is to associate them with the crows and ravens, another way is to contrast them with eagles (2H6 3 2 192, JC 5 1 85, R3 1 1 133, CYM 1 1 141):

Were't not all one an empty eagle were set

to guard the chicken from a hungry kite.

(2H6 1 1 248-9)


O blessed, that I might not! I chose an eagle,

And did avoid a puttock.

Thou took'st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne

A seat for baseness.

(CYM 1 2 70-3)

In this last example the Elizabethan parallel between the natural organization of the world and human affairs is particularly stressed by the chiasmus puttock=beggar - eagle=throne.

Developing the notion of association of species, ARMSTRONG (pages 11-18) shows that reference to this bird is normally accompanied not only by allusions to crows or eagles, but also to death, bed, spirits and food, forming a cluster of ideas in the poet's mind that is repeated throughout his works.