White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, Pélican blanc or Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus, Pélican frisé.
R2 2 1 126 That blood already, like the pelican,
HAM 4 5 146 And, like the kind life-rend'ring pelican,
LR 3 4 74 Those pelican daughters.
Remains of Dalmatian Pelicans have been found in the Fens, but they date back from the Pleistocene era. If Shakespeare ever saw a pelican it would have been in a menagerie, but anyway he seems to have been more interested in the myth that surrounds this bird than in the bird itself.
The pelican was said to revive or feed its young with its own blood which poured from self-made wounds. SEAGER in his Natural History in Shakespeare's Time (1896) quotes Batman uppon Bartholomew (1582, fol. 186):
The pellican loueth too much her children. For when the children bee haught, and begin to waxe hoare, they smite the father and the mother in the face, wherfore the mother smiteth them againe and slaieth them. And the third daye the mother smitheth her selfe in her side that the blood runneth out, and sheddeth that hot blood uppon the bodies of her children. And by virtue of the bloud the birdes that were before dead, quicken again.
The young Richard is thus compared by John of Gaunt to the young pelican:
O, spare me not, my brother Edward's son,
For that I was his father Edward's son;
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp'd out and drunkenly carous'd:
My brother Gloucester, plain well-meaning soul,
Whom fair befall in heaven 'mongst happy souls,
May be a president and witness good
That thou respect'st not spilling Edward's blood.
(R2 2 1 124-31)
To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms,
And, like the kind life-rend'ring pelican,
Repast them with my blood.
(HAM 4 5 145-7)
But the most striking use is made in King Lear in order to illustrate ingratitude and heartlessness. THOMPSON and THOMPSON in Shakespeare Meaning and Metaphor, (1987), make the following comment:
[The] monstrous behaviour of a few threatens to lead to an apocalyptic situation in which all humanity becomes monstrous, specifically by becoming cannibalistic [...] "Humanity must perforce prey on itself" (4 2 49) [...] Goneril and Regan who are preying on their own father. Lear himself has already commented on this:
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't?
(3 4 14-16)
Judicious punishment: 'twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
(3 4 74-75)
Hence the already horrific monstrosity of cannibalism (a creature eating one of its own species) is intensified by the notion of a creature eating itself. "Those pelican daughters" are in striking contrast with what is found in Richard 2 and Hamlet.