Marie’s Musings

No. 9: Eating Crow: My Change of Heart on The Phoenix and the Turtle

by Marie Delgado Travis

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Since I’ve commented on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and narrative poems over the past few posts, it seemed natural to look at The Phoenix and the Turtle (as in Turtledove), also ascribed to him.

The poem first appeared in Robert Chester’s anthology, Love’s Martyr (1601), with participation by other famous writers of the time, including John Marston, George Chapman and the ubiquitous Ben Jonson.

Richard Field, who “set forth” Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), printed this volume of poetry, as well.

Folger Shakespeare Library.
All Images for Educational Purposes Only.

My immediate reaction— which I posted and later removed, so I could muse on it further— was essentially, “This couldn’t possibly be by the same author … or maybe it’s his juvenilia.”

I recall that the exact words I used were “clunky” and “old-fashioned,” along the lines of Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (… apologies if your thesis on that work!I’m smiling).

But IF as my favorite English Professor said, “Nothing is wasted in Shakespeare,” didn’t I owe The Phoenix and the Turtle a second chance?

As I  reread the poem, several lines in the poem now caught my attention:

Let the Preift [Priest] in Surples [Surplice] white,

That defunctiue [funereal Music] can,

Be the death-deuining [divining] Swan

Left [Lest] the Requiem lacke his right.

The Threatened Swan
by Jan Asselijn (c. 1640)
Source: Wikipedia

The Swan, of course, is said to sing most beautifully before dying. So, the poem seemed to allude to the priest’s sacred right to celebrate a specific rite— a chanted Mass for the Dead— in the poem’s case, for the dead Phoenix and Turtledove.

Note Shakespeare’s use of the Latin term Requiem, rather than a more ambiguous term like “Memorial” or “Service.” The Roman Catholic Mass, including Masses for the Dead were, of course, traditionally celebrated in Latin, until relatively recent times.

“Lux Æterna” from a Requiem
by William Byrd

We know what the ultimate fate of the Phoenix will be, although the author stops tantalizingly short of it in his poem. It is a happy one. Legend has it that the Phoenix— for centuries regarded as a Christ figure— will rise in glory from its ashes.

Book of Emblems
(Frankfurt, 1583)
The Latin text refers to the Phoenix as a Christ figure, and an “Ever-Singular Bird, Father
and Son to Itself.”

But what of the Turtledove? Here the poet goes off script. Rather than present us with the mythical “lone Phoenix” (see images above), Shakespeare goes out of his way to assure us that the Phoenix is married, and that while “distinct,” and even physically “distant” from one another, she and her husband, the Turtledove, are paradoxically “one.”

So they loued as loue in twaine,

Had the essence but in one,

Two diftincts, Diuifion [distincts, division] none,

Number there in loue was flaine [slain].

The mystery of their “Oneness” can be resolved by the Biblical concept that in marriage, ”two become one, ” and that “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

In Ephesians, however, St. Paul, compares the marriage between husband and wife, with the marriage between Christ and his Church:

He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of him, body, of his flesh and of his bones. — Eph. 5: 28 – 30).

But “Oneness” within the Church was sorely lacking in Shakespeare’s time. Apropos of the dying Swan analogy, a Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass in Elizabethan England, had to do so in secret, with the full understanding that he faced imminent arrest, inhuman torture and gruesome death, under a number of statutes, including:

  • the 1558 (1559) Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1 Eliz. 1, c. 1-2), and
  • the 1584 (1585) Act against “Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons” (27 Eliz. 1, c. 2).

The latter essentially made it an act of treason punishable by death for a Catholic priest to so much as step on English soil, without taking the Oath of Supremacy within three days of his arrival.

If he were “fortunate” enough to obtain mercy, he might be permanently banished, with the attendant loss of family, friends, property, and even language (as Mowbray points out so eloquently in Richard II).

Under the same statute, anyone offering shelter or assistance to priests faced massive fines, imprisonment, torture, and even death.

This certainly explains the poem’s prohibition on “the [shreiking] harbinger” [the owl] and “every foule of tyrant wing,” from attending the Requiem, with only a few exceptions, like the Eagle.

Why that bird in particular? Well, in light of the religious and political climate of the day, the following Biblical passage may have brought a measure of comfort to recusants:

You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, how I have carried you upon the wings of eagles, and have taken you to myself.

Exodus 19: 4

The Eagle also happens to be one of William Stanley’s family symbols. That “W.S.,” of course, is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford’s son-in-law.

Heraldic Charge of
James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, son of William Stanley and Elizabeth Vere. Source:

In short, Shakespeare’s message throughout the poem is “pray,” not “prey,” for salvation.

Note that while Elizabethan Protestants believed that only two Sacraments were “Scriptural”— Baptism and Communion— Shakespeare alludes to all seven of the Sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church in his poem, whether directly or indirectly:

  • Baptism
  • Reconciliation (Confession)
  • the Eucharist
  • Confirmation
  • Matrimony
  • Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction)
  • Holy Orders.

Let’s see how he accomplishes that:

A Requiem, like every Mass, centers around the consecration of the Eucharist by an ordained priest, i.e., one who has received Holy Orders.

In order to receive the Eucharist, those in attendance would need to be baptized, and to have confessed their sins to a priest for absolution.

The deceased would ideally have received Last Rites in preparation for dying.

And we’ve already discussed the theme of Marriage in the work.

Finally, the Sacrament of Confirmation implies a Catholic’s vow to witness to his faith, if necessary, to the point of martyrdom, another apparent theme in the poem.

At the vere end of the The Phoenix and the Turtle, Shakespeare adds:

For thefe [these] dead Birds, figh [sigh] a prayer.

The prayers Shakespeare solicits for the dead imply the Catholic belief in the existence of Purgatory. Elizabethan Protestants didn’t believe in “The Other Place,” as Hamlet calls it … or in the use of “intermediaries” to communicate with God.

Through allegory— and therefore “plausible deniability”— the author touches upon deeply held religious issues— issues that the faithful on both sides have deemed worth dying for, throughout the ages.

Dr. Taylor Marshall on “Why We [Catholics] Pray for the Dead” (September 2022)

In short, if the poem weren’t “for the birds” (— and of course, I’m being facetious), Elizabethan authorities might well have banned Shake-speare’s poem as “heretical”— and we never would have gotten this rare glimpse into Shakespeare’s soul … and that of his Age.

More on The Phoenix and the Turtle in my next post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
%d bloggers like this: