For the Birds Radio Program: Shakespeare's Birds

Original Air Date: April 26, 1995

In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, Laura Erickson talks about the birds in his plays. (4:08) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Some day within the next three days is the birthday of William Shakespeare, who may or may not have written a bunch of plays depending on which scholar you happen to be talking to.

Shakespeare was either a sexist pig or wonderfully understanding of the social constraints that bound the women of his time, crass and crude or the most lyrically divine of poets, a plunderer and plagiarist of the works of others or magnificently creative. No matter who or what he really was, he definitely knew one heck of a lot about birds, and incorporated avian images throughout his work.

To make a clear picture of a character’s ignorance of fine legal matters, he wrote in Henry VI, Part I, “In these nice sharp quillets of the law, /Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.” Of course, American readers won’t get the reference unless they know that a daw is a jackdaw, a close relative of our good old crow, who probably isn’t all that well versed in jurisprudence either. Othello wore his “heart on (his) sleeve for daws to peck at.” Surprisingly, Shakespeare didn’t write any play similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, or there might have been an interesting twist on another of his lines, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

In Richard III, “The world is grown so bad, /That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” Yet, in the same play, “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.” Eagles are often symbols of stem, unemotional power. In Titus Andronicus,I “The eagle suffers little birds to sing./ And is not careful what they mean thereby.” An eagle sets a dovecote all aflutter in Coriolanus*

Owls “night’s herald,” provided important imagery in many of his plays. A tiny relative of our own little screech owl appears in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “When nightly sings the staring owl, Tu­ who;/ Tu-whit, tu-who — a merry note.” Of course an owl must appear in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream. “The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots, and wonders/ At our quaint spirits.” A more ominous owl portends the death of Julius Caesar, when “Yesterday the bird of night did sit,/ Even at noonday, upon the marketplace,/ Hooting and shrieking.” And in Macbeth, “It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,/ Which gives the stem’st good-night.”

Shakespeare even seemed to understand something of birdwatchers and their need to show off their identification skills. Romeo and Juliet’s first argument was over the identification of a bird. …

(Recording from soundtrack of Romeo and Juliet)

Lark? Nightingale? If only they’d made a recording, or at least jotted down a description in their field notebook, we could at last know who was right. Then again, they might have jotted down who exactly put those words in their mouths in the first place so we could lay to rest once and for all who that Shakespeare guy was anyway.