Marie’s Musings

No. 13: Shakes-Speare’s Sigh

By Marie Delgado Travis

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I’ve been revising my post on William Byrd, and just came across additional information, so it will have to wait a bit, but I promise it will be worth it!

Meanwhile, I started thinking about the Vere last line of Shake-Speare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle [as in Turtledove](1601):

For these dead birds figh a prayer [i.e., sigh a prayer].

In an earlier post, I explained how bold this statement is. Elizabethan Protestants believed praying for the dead was a heretical “Papist” practice. In Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (2002), Peter Marshall refers to the Elizabethan Protestants’ “allergy to concepts of imprecation, intercession and post-mortem purgation” (p. 194, Kindle ed.).

In short, they did not believe in intermediaries, but rather salvation by Faith alone— nor did they believe in what Shakespeare’s Hamlet called “The Other Place” (Purgatory).

This video by Dr. Taylor Marshall, a former Anglican priest turned Catholic apologist, gives a clear and concise (approximately 10 minute) overview:

Dr. Taylor Marshall
“Why We Pray for the Dead”
(September 2002)

I’ve contended over the past few posts that The Phoenix and the Turtle isn’t “really” about birds (I’m smiling). It’s arguably about Catholic martyrs, and I was happy to see after my own musings (— I like to think through Shakespeare’s lines on my own before checking what others have said), how many scholars have come to similar conclusions. I welcome you, as always, to read my previous posts below.

But musing on that last line of the poem, I now asked myself, “Why didn’t the man who wrote Shakespeare just say, ‘Say a prayer for the dead birds?’ Why “sigh?” Both “say” and “sigh” have an equal number of syllables, so it wasn’t a question of metrification. “Sigh” is admittedly more poetic, but do we actually “sigh prayers?”

I decided to see if the Bible shed any clues. And sure enough, St. Paul discusses prayer at length in Romans 8. But he begins by identifying a sadness and disquiet within us. Let’s see what words translators used to describe this feeling in Biblical editions Shakespeare might have referenced:

The Great Bible (1539), commissioned by Henry VIII uses the gloomy term, “mourn”:

Not onely it, but we also which haue the fyrst frutes of the spryte, morne in oure selues also, and wayte for the adopcyon euen the delyueraunce of oure bodye (Romans 8: 23).

All Images for Educational Purposes Only. Source:
Wikimedia, Wikipedia.
Biblical quotations / Strong’s Concordance from

The Bishops Bible (1558/9), translated during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I, follows suit:

… we our selues mourne in our selues … (Romans 8: 23).

Since the poem seemed to be about Catholic martyrdom, how did the Latin Vulgate and the Douay Rheims translate St. Paul’s sentiment?

The Latin Vulgate uses the verb “gemere”:

… et ipsi intra nos gemimus … (Romans 8: 23).

I’m quite familiar with that Latin word’s derivative, “gemir” in Spanish, and it does have the above dictionary meanings. But I have always associated it mostly with its alternate definitions, “whimper,” or a “soft cry or wail.”

Nonetheless, the Catholic Douay Rheims (New Testament, 1582) translated the Latin as:

… we ourselves groan within ourselves … (Romans 8: 23).

— which is consistent with the King James Bible (1611):

… even we ourselves groan within ourselves … (Romans 8: 23).

And just for the record, since I believe that as an avid wordsmith, the man who wrote Shakespeare would have found all available translations of interest, the Coverdale Bible (1535) uses  “grone,” while the Matthew Bible (1537), chooses “mourne,” and the Tynsdale (1522-1536), morne.”  Wycliffe (1382-1395), on the other hand, translates “sorewen,” which I imagine is “sorrow” or “sorrowing.”

The translators of the Geneva Bible (1560), however, took a wholly (pun) different approach. Referring to St. Paul’s original Greek text, they seem to realize that the word Paul uses— στεναζομεν (third person plural of στενάζω, pronounced “stenazo”) shares the above meanings (to mourn, groan, moan), but it has some vere interesting connotations, as well.

Strong’s Concordance summarizes:

… to make (intransitively, be) in straits, i.e. (by implication) to sigh, murmur, pray inaudibly.

Thus, the Geneva Bible is the only one of the early English Bibles to translate St. Paul’s phrase as:

… even as we doe sigh in our selues … (Romans 8: 23).

And I must to say the translators’ choice is a perfect parallel to the word Paul uses for the Holy Spirit, πνεῦμα (pneuma), which means, among others, “breath” (Strong’s).

So we see that the man who wrote Shakespeare’s use of the phrase, “sigh a prayer” is no accident. It is a clue, likely inspired by that slight, but inspired turn of phrase in the Geneva Bible.

We know from Dr. Roger Stritmatter’s dissertation, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence (2001), that the 17th Earl of Oxford owned such a Bible (1568-1570 second edition, according to Dr. Stritmatter).

His book, in fact, is in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. See image of his emblem, the boar, on the Bible’s cover above. From its protective case, it was apparently a book which its owner cherished, wanted to preserve, and more than likely, pass on to his future heirs.

There is also the vere real possibility that the man who wrote Shakespeare could read the Bible in Greek, unlike the man from Stratford-upon-Avon’s “small Latin and less Greek,” per Ben Jonson’s teasing comment in Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).

What then does St. Paul tell converts to Christianity about prayers in Romans 8– keeping in mind Shakespeare’s exhortation to pray in the last line of The Phoenix and the Turtle:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we knowe not what to pray as wee ought: but the Spirit it selfe maketh request for vs with sighs, which cannot be expressed. But he that
searcheth the heartes, knoweth what is the meaning of the Spirit: for he maketh request for ye Saints, according to the wil of God. Also we knowe that all thinges worke together for the best vnto them that loue God, euen to them that are called of his purpose (Romans 8: 26-28).

What does this passage mean? I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that St. Paul is saying that even when we cannot find the words, because:

  • we are too weak (physically or spiritually);
  • or we don’t know how to pray;
  • or our grief or needs are inexpressible;
  • or we aren’t allowed to openly express them, etc.,

— the Holy Spirit that abides in us intercedes, interpreting and conveying our sighs to God the Father, who in turn answers them according to His Will, and in our own best interest.

Note the Trinitarian aspect of Romans 8: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit working together for our good, e.g., our consolation and deliverance … and how St, Paul’s message is on point with Shake-Speare’s poem about martyrdom:

Who shall separate vs from the loue of Christ? shall tribulation or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakednesse, or perill, or sworde? As it is written, For thy sake are we killed all day long: we are counted as sheepe for the slaughter; in all these thinges we are more than conquerours through him that loued vs  (Romans 8: 35-37). 

Tyburn Martyrs

St. Paul ends the chapter with a resounding message of Hope for believers, in one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament:

For I am perswaded that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shalbe able to separate vs from the loue of God, which is in Christ Iesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38-39).

St. Paul by El Greco (1610)
Prado Museum, Spain

This in turn elicited Shake-Speare’s own prayerful sigh in the final line of The Phoenix and the Turtle some fifteen centuries later:

For these dead birds figh a prayer [i.e., sigh a prayer]

Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist, Tyburn Convent
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
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