For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in Shakespeare

Original Air Date: April 24, 1987

Laura explains a few of the Shakespearean lines about birds. (3:45) Date verified.

Duration: 3′48″


(Recording of a cuckoo clock)

William Shakespeare’s birthday is today–unless it’s tomorrow, or Sunday, or maybe yesterday. He was baptized on April 26, 1564–that’s for sure. And with the tragically high infant mortality back then, baptisms usually took place within a few days of birth. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and so many scholars set April 23 as the anniversary of his birth as well as his death.

Although Shakespeare was a prolific playwright and poet, he wrote very little about his personal life. But, from his works, it is clear that he was familiar with a lot of folklore and mythology about birds and that he spent at least a little time observing birds himself.

One of Shakespeare’s favorite avian metaphors was the cuckoo–a bird famous for its promiscuity and its habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo is a harbinger of spring in Europe much the way our robin is here. The European cuckoo’s song, a two-noted “cuckoo,” inspired the cuckoo clock, and also inspired Shakespeare to write in Love’s Labors Lost:

The cuckoo, then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, Cuckoo
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.

Shakespeare must have observed that as welcome as the cuckoo is in March and April, people don’t pay much attention to it by June–sort of the way we take our neighborhood robins for granted after we see the first one. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he wrote:

He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, Not regarded.

Shakespeare made many allusions to owls, too, although most of his references were probably based more on the folklore of the time than on any personal observations of owls. To write “The owl, night’s herald” doesn’t require more than a nursery school background into the lives of owls. But he does seem to have spent some time watching the owl written about in Love’s Labors Lost:

When icicles hang by the wall…
And Tom bears logs into the hall…
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who–a merry note.

Throughout his plays there are many references to falconry–the sport of kings–and to the legend of the swan song. Some reputable ornithologists claim to have actually heard dying swans sing a mournful song, and so the mythology of the swan song may be rooted in fact. And Shakespeare knew enough about the promiscuous habits of wrens to have King Lear ask, “Die for adultery? No! The wren goes to ‘t.”

One of my favorite Shakespearian bird lines is Hamlet’s:

I am but mad north-northwest.
When the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Shakespearian scholars still debate about the meaning of that. Some of them claim that the “hawk” was a basic tool of the plasterer; the handsaw the basic tool of the carpenter. More ornithologically inclined scholars insist that the word “handsaw” was a corruption of the word “heronshaw” meaning a young heron. No matter which argument is right, there is little doubt about Hamlet’s mental state when he said it.

(Recording of a cuckoo clock)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”