QotW (ep.65): 28 January 2019

image:  Hugh Ribbans

This weekend just gone marked the 40th RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.  As the ‘Upstart Crow‘ (or magpie) himself, I’m sure Shakespeare would have approved …

shakespeare birdsHis plays include references to more than 60 species of birds.  Probably the most interesting/remarkable bird-related Shakespeare story didn’t actually take place until 1891, when the well-intentioned Eugene Schieffelin introduced the starling to the US and unwittingly created a major invasive species problem.  And you can see from this image that he hasn’t been the only one fascinated by the Bard’s birds …

That said, it’s worth noting that in the UK, starling populations have crashed by 80% since the Birdwatch began.  Over the last ten years or so I’ve seen them drop from an all time high of 40+ in my garden (and counting them was quite a job) to no more than 4 or 5, sadly …

My favourite bird-related Shakespeare quote doesn’t feature this gorgeous, iridescent squabbling spiv, but another.

Cue Lady Macbeth:

Hark! Peace!
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. [a]

… in a play full of references to birds: just think of the raven; the loon; the wren, too – defending her clutch against the owl, again.  A little research suggests that the ‘bellman’ would wander through the village / town announcing that someone was near death, prompting those who heard him to pray for the soul of the soon to be departed [b] – what a great metaphor.

Our associations of owls with death have faded, probably with our 24-hour, street-lit culture and the retreat of owls from towns, but back in Shakespeare’s time they had terrible reputations:

‘If to “give a dog a bad name and you may as well hang him” were literally true, the poor owl would have long ago ceased to exist, for never was any bird so maligned.’ [c]

Living half in 2019 and half in 1592, I must admit feeling a little spooked as well as absolutely thrilled to hear one about a year ago, in the mature copse on the edge of our school grounds (usually the home of a huge colony of jackdaws, by the way).  Remarkably, this was in the morning – one of those dreadful winter days when you go to work AND come home from work in the dark.

What’s your favourite bird from Shakespeare?


[a] William Shakespeare, Macbeth (II.ii), at http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org

[b] Shakespeare Online, at http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethglossary/macbeth1_1/macbethglos_owlshriek.html

[c] E Phipson, Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time (1883), (The Lost Library:  London, 2011)




Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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