As well as being St George’s Day, 23 April is reputed to be Shakespeare’s birthday. It was certainly the date on which he died. Apparently his birth date is open to question but, well, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Shakespeare was a Warwickshire lad and one imagines that he spent much of his early life outside in the woods and fields around Stratford-upon-Avon. There’s a lot of rural folklore in his plays. Perhaps he recalled his childhood with fondness later on when he found himself amidst the dust and bustle of London. Certainly there are many references to wildlife in his work, including a few stereotypes of wildlife that have persisted to this day.
So, by way of a change, and following Bill Oddie's advice to see the art in nature, I will ('events' permitting) take a nostalgic ramble of my own through the works of Shakespeare this week. But you could help by drawing my attention to any of your favourite wildlife references.
Let's start with birds. There are too many to mention them all, so I thought I’d pick out some that were obviously common in Shakespeare’s day but which are, sadly, harder to spot now.
Shakespeare was obviously familiar with the call of the cuckoo and its unusual nesting habits. The cuckoo, he writes in Antony and Cleopatra, “builds not for itself” . True enough. Yet there was also a common misconception that young cuckoos, when they reached maturity, would eat the birds that reared them. “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it’s had it head bit off by it young”, says the Fool in King Lear, who was certainly a fool when it came to cuckoo behaviour, as they do no such thing.
Turtle doves, about which I will be writing more over during the next few months, were symbols of fidelity and faithfulness: “Like to a pair of loving turtle-doves, that could not live asunder day or night” (Henry VI), or, “As true as steel...as sun to day, as turtle to her mate” (Troilus and Cressida). Turtle doves were reputed to mate for life and certainly there is evidence of them staying with the same mate through successive breeding seasons. Which got me wondering: is there a correlation between the decline in the population of the turtle dove, that emblem of marriage, with the increase in the UK divorce rate? There’s a Ph.D. in there somewhere...
If doves are faithful in Shakespeare, then jays are inconstant. “Some jay of Italy, whose mother was her painting, hath betray’d him”, complains Imogen in Cymbeline. The Merry Wives of Windsor pledge to teach Falstaff “how to know turtles from jays” – to distinguish honest women from loose ones.
Other, blacker corvids get a bad press and are regarded as bad omens purely because of their colour. The raven is characterised as a very worrying sign indeed. "The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan, under my battlements.” Lady Macbeth was right, as poor old Duncan didn’t last the night. But, given that she played a large part in his murder, it was a bit disingenuous of her to blame it on the raven. Not much has changed, corvids still have a PR problem, and it’s as unfair now as it was then.
Owls were also considered unlucky, presumably as they are creatures of the night. “The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign”, says Henry VI to the future Richard III (Boo! Hiss!). Fortunately people are now more likely to stop and gaze in wonder at owls, rather than run away screaming.
Lapwings were obviously quite familiar to Shakespeare. Two characteristics of the lapwing are mentioned. Young lapwings were perceived to run out of their eggs with part of the shell stuck to their heads, as they were in a great hurry to hatch. “This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head”, says Horatio of the foolish Osric (Hamlet). It was also noted that lapwings drew predators away from their nests by flying low across the ground in the opposite direction. “For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs close by the ground to hear our conference” (Much Ado About Nothing). If only lapwings were as easy to observe nowadays, when the delightful sight of a young lapwing leaving its nest is comparatively rare.
And we should end with a song or two. The skylark and the nightingale are two species whose fortunes have foundered in recent years, but Shakespeare reminds us why they matter. Shakespeare believed that the lark sang by day and, mistakenly, that the nightingale only sang at night. Juliet convinces Romeo that night has fallen, explaining, “It was the nightingale, and not the lark, that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear; Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree; Believe me, love, it was the nightingale."
And centuries before Shelley and Vaughan Williams were depicting the skylark in poetry and music, Shakespeare paid his own tribute: “Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest, from his moist cabinet mounts up on high, and wakes the morning, from whose silver breast the sun ariseth in his majesty”.
These sights and sounds were all commonplace for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. These birds are as much a part of our national heritage as Shakespeare himself - and we should treasure them just the same.
Which is your favourite reference to wildlife in Shakespeare?
If you have a spare moment, it would be great to hear form you.
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