Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, Rossignol philomèle.

30 occurrences (11 nightingale, 2 nightingales, 1 nightingale's, 11 Philomel, 1 Philomels, 2 Philomela, 1 night-bird, 1 bird)




The nightingale is a bird of low thickets, reluctant to show itself, maintaining a territory and attracting a mate by a rich, loud and musical song. It is well-known in that it keeps on singing through the night, when there is little competition from the other birds. Its British range is limited to the South and East and may not have been more widespread in the past.

Leaving such a secluded life deep in the bushes and singing so beautifully, it is not surprising that it should have given rise to various beliefs. HARTING comments about one of them:

In one, if not more, of his poems he has noticed the odd belief which formerly existed to the effect that the mournful notes of the nightingale are caused by the bird's leaning against a thorn to sing!

Every thing did banish moan,

Save the nightingale alone:

She, poor bird, as all forlorn,

Lean'd her breast up-till a thorn,

And there sung the dolefull'st ditty,

That to hear it was great pity.

(PP 20 7-12, emphasis added)

Another belief, linked with the nightingale, is mythological, to be found in Ovid. It says that Tereus raped his wife's sister Philomel, cut out her tongue and imprisoned her in a tower. She succeeded in depicting her fate in a tapestry and showing it to her sister Progne, who revenged her by killing Itylus, her own son by Tereus, and serving him to his father as a meal. The gods decided then to turn everyone into birds: Tereus to a hoopoe, Philomel to a nightingale, Progne to a swallow and Itylus to a pheasant.

We can see the numerous references Shakespeare made to this story in Titus Andronicus, even in the very plot of the play. More precisely, all the elements of the myth are recalled in the play:

This is the day of doom for Bassianus;

His Philomel must lose her tongue to-day,

Thy sons make pillage of her chastity,

And wash their hands in Bassianus' blood.

(2 3 42-4, emphasis added)

Fair Philomel, why? she but lost her tongue,

And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:

But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;

A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,

And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,

That could have better sew'd than Philomel.

(2 4 38-43, idem)


Lucius, what book is that she tosseth so?


Grandsire, 'tis Ovid's Metamorphosis;

My mother gave it me.



This is the tragic tale of Philomel,

And treats of Tereus' treason and his rape,

And rape, I fear, was root of thy annoy.


See, brother, see! note how she quotes the leaves.


Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl,

Ravished and wronged as Philomela was,

Forced in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?

(4 1 41-3 [...] 46-53, idem)

For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,

And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.

(5 2 194-5, idem)

The intertext is here obvious as it is cited: "Ovid's Metamorphosis". What is more, the protagonists are using it to decide on the future of the plot.

The poetic name of the nightingale is then often "Philomel" as in: "As Philomel in summer's front doth sing" (SON 102 7). There must also lie the reason why when talking about the nightingale, Shakespeare uses the feminine and writes "Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree (ROM 3 5 4). Emma PHIPSON remarks that "in our own days the knowledge that it is the male bird which sings is reflected by the poets of our time." Indeed Keats speaks of the nightingale as masculine.

Peter GOODFELLOW (p. 39) sees the difference between Shakespeare, the countryman, in:

Philomel, with melody,

Sings our sweet lullaby;

Lulla, lulla, lullaby; Lulla, lulla, lullaby;

(MND 2 2 13-5)

And Shakespeare, the poet, in:

Here I can sit alone, unseen of any,

And to the nightingale's complaining notes

Tune my distresses, and record my woes.

(TGV 5 4 4-6)

But in no other bird than the nightingale lies this subtle quality of melancholy associated to beauty, thus producing what was already in Shakespeare's time a commonplace. But no other commonplace about birds had such a career.