Shakespeare's Ornithology

This study is concerned with bird imagery in Shakespeare as far as "bird species" are concerned. What will be called "bird species" are the occasions when Shakespeare uses the name of a family of birds or of a single kind of bird.

In literature, especially when expressed mainly in verse, it is expected that the imagery referring to birds would refer mainly to birds in general (birds, feathered fowl, fowls of the air, or such expressions), to bird parts (wing, bill, etc ...), or to their unique ability, that is the flight.

Caroline SPURGEON, in her detailed analysis of Shakespeare's imagery, shows that in Shakespeare's works single kinds of birds - "bird species" - amount to more than half of all bird references. Indeed, 64 different "bird species" can be found spread over 606 occurrences (see List of Birds in Shakespeare).

In a less literary and a more ornithological context, the great ornithologist James FISHER writes :

It is fair to say that Shakespeare provides the ornithologist with a gross and more of quotations, many of unprecedented beauty. These are back-up quotations to the bird-historians. As far as I can discover Shakespeare saw birds well, and remembered them, as he remembered an incredible amount of things, with precision. But there is no evidence from his published writings that he ever saw a bird do anything that nobody had written of before.

These two statements are equally interesting in their respective fields. The aim of this study is to combine these two visions. The systematic attempt to give a scientific name to the "bird species" used by Shakespeare is explained by the fact that for each species we try to assess how much its name adds to the image.

This will allow to see how birds are represented in Shakespeare's works and to analyse the resulting imagery.

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