Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Birds and Henry V

December 12, 2008

agincourt-by-gilvertWe’re almost 600 years away from the Battle of Agincourt, the famous battle in which the outnumbered, cold, and hungry soldiers of Henry V defeated the French in the most famous battle of the Hundred Years War.  Shakespeare’s play Henry V centers on the English invasion of France that culminated on the battlefield near Agincourt.

And what, you may ask, has that got to do with birds?

The answer is: Shakespeare.

Shakespeare knew birds and today we begin an occasional series about his love of birds and the thousands of references to them in his plays and poems. We’ve decided to start with some images from Henry V.

In many plays, Shakespeare refers to birds by name but in Henry V birds mainly are metaphors for swift movement.  In fact, as Caroline Spurgeon noted in her 1935 classic, Shakespeare’s Imagery, the flight of birds, “. . . symbolized the swiftest movement known to man.” (243) Only one species is specifically identifiable in this play and it is the world’s fastest. When Henry describes his affection for his soldiers, many of whom are low-born conscripts, he describes his affections as “higher mounted” than those of commoners, “yet, when they [his affections] stoop, they stoop with the like wing.”  Shakespeare does not name the Peregrine Falcon in that passage, but what else could he have been talking about? Peregrines, the fastest animal on the planet, are the highest and fastest divers.
Most, if not all, the bird references in Henry V are used as similes or metaphors for speed. Preparing to depart for France, Henry urges speed in the preparations,

Let our proportions for these wars
Be soon collected, and all things thought upon
That may with reasonable swiftness add
More feathers to our wings.

While the fleet is on the way to France, the audience is implored to think of wings as the scene changes,

Thus, with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought.

Likewise, on his way back from France, the audience is asked to,

Heave him away upon your winged thoughts
Athwart the sea.

Probably Location of the Battle of Agincourt

Probable Location of the Battle of Agincourt

The night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry visits his troops.  In  a famous discussion with them, Henry argues while a subject’s duty belongs to the King, the subject’s soul is his own.  Soldiers who previously have been miscreants or worse “have no wings to fly from God.”

And, in one of the sublime moments of highest emotion in the play, characters have wings to fly to God. The Duke of York discovers his friend Suffolk dead on the battlefield.  He cries out,

Tarry, dear cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven;
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast.


Shakespeare’s Birthday

April 23, 2008

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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