Shakespeare’s Birthday

Today might be the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. No one knows for sure, but this is the traditional day.[1]

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare?
The correct day of his birth is just one of the ten thousand details about Shakespeare’s life of which we know next to nothing. Some people aren’t even sure Shakespeare was really Shakespeare. He might have been somebody else. But this blog is unafraid of that controversy. We take the position that Shakespeare was Shakespeare and that he wrote the plays and the poetry attributed to him. He is dead now. Dead since this same day, April 23rd, in 1616, the same day that Cervantes died.

With all that out of the way, we can get to the point of today’s post: While we know little about Shakespeare’s biography, we know that he loved birds. His writing is full of avian references. And not just general references but explicit ones about individual species and their behaviors, indicating that Shakespeare knew the birds of England very well indeed. According to one scholar, Caroline Spurgeon, of all the images in Shakespeare only images relating to the human body outnumber those relating to birds. Falcons, Eagles, Hawks, Kites, swans, crows, ravens pelicans, doves, choughs, lapwings, herons, sparrows, owls, larks, even chickens populate the plays.

Goshawks “wing the wind”, turkey-cocks strut beneath “advanced plumes”, wild geese are “ scattered by winds and tempestuous gusts”, and falcons, “tower in [their] pride of place.” Chided by her father for her choice in husbands a daughter tells him, “I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock.” Falstaff bemoans a lack of courage on the part of a fellow robber by noting that he has no more valour than a wild duck. Juliet longs for, “. . .a falc’ners voice, to lure this tassel-gentle [Romeo] back again.” ” Anthony flies after Cleopatra like a “doting mallard.” And Othello promises to whistle Desdemona off like a falcon and let her, “down the wind to prey at fortune” should she prove unfaithful. Beatrice, “like a lapwing, runs close by the ground.” Prince Hal, wasting his youth but soon to be King Henry V, is a Cuckoo in June, “heard but not regarded.”

We could go on and on and would; except there is, “Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity as a Wren’s eye.” Instead, we will, “. . . with reasonable swiftness add more feathers to our wings” and depart this post before trying your patience further. As we used to say in the Royal Navy, “You may, “Heave [us] away upon your winged thoughts athwart the sea.”

[1] At the time of his life, Britain still used the Julian Calendar. The British Empire did not officially begin using the Gregorian calendar until 1752.

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