Shakespeare and Birds

In the first part of her book Caroline SPURGEON set herself the task of examining the whole range of the imagery used by Shakespeare, in order to be able to draw some conclusions upon his "senses, tastes and interests".

Of the large animal group, the outstanding point is the great number drawn from birds. If we except the human body, its parts, movements and senses, Shakespeare's images from birds form by far the largest section drawn from any single class of objects.

His bird images are remarkable for the intense feeling and sympathy they reveal for the trapped, limed or snared bird, which to him symbolises the greatest pitch of terror and agony mortal creature may endure. So Claudius, at his prayers, realising that he is so hopelessly besmirched and involved in the results of his crime, that he dare not even pray for forgiveness, cries,

O wretched state! O bosom black as death!

O limed soul that, struggling to be free

Art more engag'd!

(HAM 3 3 67-9)

So, in the most moving scene in Macbeth, when Lady Macduff and her little son realise the imminence of their danger, she compares her boy to a poor bird in peril of"the net", "the lime", "the pitfall" or "the gin". [...] So also Lucrece, escaped from Tarquin's brutality,

Wrapp'd and confounded in a thousand fears,

Like to a new-kill'd bird she trembling lies.

(LUC 456-7)

In comparing Shakespeare's bird imagery with that of other Elizabethan writers, Caroline SPURGEON does not find this sympathy with the trapped bird, "except in Marlowe, who, somewhat perfunctorily, thus describes Hero in Leander's arms" ,

Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring,

Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing,

She trembling strove.

(Hero and Leander 2 289)

On the other hand, Bacon is, according to Caroline Spurgeon, only concerned with "the clipping of wings, scattering of flights of birds, soaring of the lark and hawk, and the action of the bird of prey" .

The extent of the sympathy Shakespeare can produce is even greater; we can picture the atmosphere of hunting at a moment that is difficult for the sensitive man.

Alas, poor hurt fowl, now will he creep into sedges.

(ADO 2 1 188)

No doubt Shakespeare relished the song of birds. He twice introduces "Melodious birds sings madrigals" (WIV 3 1 17) in a song in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But in those days this feeling must have been shared by all, it was the only readily available source of music for most people, hence the many songbirds people kept encaged.

In his excellent book on The Ornithology of Shakespeare, HARTING explains how, in his opinion, Shakespeare's bird metaphors, "may be said to owe their origin mainly to three causes".

Firstly, Shakespeare had a good practical knowledge of Falconry, a pastime which, being much in vogue in his day, brought under notice, almost of necessity, many wild birds, exclusive of the various species which were hawked at and killed. Secondly, he was a great reader, and, possessing a good memory, was enabled subsequently to express in verse ideas which had been suggested by older authors. Thirdly, and most important of all, he was a genuine naturalist, and gathered a large amount of information from his own practical observations. In all his walks, he evidently did not fail to note even the most trivial facts in natural history, and these were treasured up in his memory, to be called forth as occasion required, to be aptly and eloquently introduced into his works.

Two observations must be made on HARTING's book, the first is that it underestimates the folklore, the common knowledge of the time and thus overestimates the influence of Shakespeare's personal observations. The second is that his purpose was more to study what Shakespeare's use of birds could prove about Shakespeare's knowledge of them and about their status in Elizabethan times - as the full title indicates: The Ornithology of Shakespeare, A Critical Examination and Explanation of bird life in Elizabethan times as reflected in the works of Shakespeare - than to analyse what birds add to his work.