Bird Week: Shakespeare’s Birds

The Seattle Public Library is partnering with the Seward Park Audubon Center for Bird Week, April 23-30, in celebration of the center’s tenth anniversary and the National Audubon Society’s 2018 Year of the Bird.

Image of William Shakespeare, a bird is perched on his let arm. Text reads: Shakespeare, Illustration from "The Birds of Shakespeare," James Edmund Harting 1871

‘Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.
~ Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4

By coincidence, as we celebrate this Bird Week, it is also Bard Week, as in the birthday of Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, a noted appreciator of the many qualities of birds. He was born April 23, 1564 according to most sources.

Sixty-four different types of birds can be found spread over 606 occurrences in his writing (listed here).  From falcon and owl, to martlet and starling, the feathery inhabitants of Shakespeare’s Aviary all have tasks to do to serve his dramatic purposes. Some signify the inner nature of his characters, some are harbingers of passing time, and others, such as the falcon and owl above, announce turmoil in the kingdom, as when a humble owl (Macbeth) can bring down a prideful falcon (King Duncan).

To continue the kingly connection, in Henry VI, Part 3, the king is about to be stabbed, and declares to Gloucester, his murderer, “Many a thousand… shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born. The Owl shriek’d at thy birth – an evil sign; the Night-Crow cried, aboding luckless time, the Raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top and chattering [mag]pies in dismal discords sung.” (Henry VI, Part 3: Act 5, Scene 6)

Although Shakespeare was himself likened to “an upstart crow” by a rival playwright in his time, he still used birds symbolically, metaphorically, and poetically within his works. For Shakespeare, birds were the announcers of mood, of changing time, and of the desires and intentions of his characters.

Here a bird reflects the desire of Henry IV to go to war in France, as hinted by his vassal, Lancaster,

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the King.
~ Henry IV Part 2: Act 5, Scene 5

Of course, Shakespeare was not first at the nest; his laureate predecessor, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote about the Parliament of Fowls in the 1380s:

On every bow the bryddes herde I synge,
With voys of aungel in here armonye;
[On every bough the birds heard I sing,
With voice of angels in their harmony]

Centuries later, in 1890, a Shakespeare devotee who was also a bird enthusiast chose to bring European starlings, a bird mentioned just one time in the canon, to America as part of a campaign to bring all of Shakespeare’s birds here. From that release of 60 birds in Central Park, New York City, there are now an estimated 200 million of this invasive non-native bird on our shores. The BBC online and The Smithsonian have more of the story..

Late in his career, Shakespeare paid for the right to have a coat of arms for his family, which illustrated his name with a spear on the crest, and a noble falcon with another spear in her grasp, atop the arms, tow’ring in her pride of place, the most noble of Shakespeare’s birds.

~ posted by Carl K.

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