The Phoenix and Turtle
For further information on The Phoenix and Turtle, see SC, Volume 10.
Totaling eighteen stanzas of verse, Shakespeare's The Phoenix and Turtle was first published in 1601 as part of Robert Chester's Love's Martyr or Rosalin's Complaint. Its subject involves the funeral of a mythic phoenix and a turtle dove, two creatures that together are generally thought to represent the ideals of constancy and love. Rescued from relative obscurity in 1875 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had issued a challenge to his fellow poets and critics to explicate The Phoenix and Turtle, the work has since elicited a broad range of commentary. In his Phönix und Taube; zur Interpretation von Shakespeare's Gedankenwelt (1953), Heinrich Straumann summarized three-quarters of a century of critical theory regarding The Phoenix and Turtle, dividing the important thought into three categories: idealist, formalist, and positivist. Since the latter half of the twentieth century these approaches, although varied and intermingled, have largely remained, as commentators have sought to evaluate this poem in the contexts of Shakespeare's presentation of themes of love and desire, use of traditional and imaginative symbolic forms, and allegorical portrayal of his historical and political milieu.
Much criticism of The Phoenix and Turtle has tended to focus on Shakespeare's concern with themes connected to love, chastity, and desire in the poem. Many scholars, while generally acknowledging Shakespeare's debt to prior literary tradition including such works as Ovid's Amores and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules, have favored an approach that focuses on Shakespeare's unique and synthetic vision in the work. Elias Schwartz characterized the poem as a funeral elegy and emphasized the thematic implications of the phoenix's failure to be reborn from its own ashes. Symbolically, this fact demonstrates that love and constancy, as represented by the phoenix and turtle, are dead. Thus, Schwartz saw the vision of love and human desire presented in The Phoenix and Turtle as akin to Shakespeare's deeply tragic handling of the love theme in his dramatic works of 1600 to 1604—Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello. Brian Green's exegesis of the poem offers a more complicated view. Calling the work "a perplexing love-elegy, traditional and yet obscure," Green outlined sexual desire in this love-tragedy as a synthesis of three traditional forms: Neoplatonic, Elizabethan, and Petrarchan. According to Green these traditions correspond to attitudes of sexual love described as "vulgar," "chaste," and "sublime," respectively. In The Phoenix and Turtle, Green argued, Shakespeare explores the interaction of all three.
The question of Shakespeare's use of traditional forms has also appeared in the formalist criticism of The Phoenix and Turtle, which generally highlights the investigation of symbolic structures and imagery in the poem. In 1962, Robert Ellrodt offered a comprehensive survey of Renaissance and Elizabethan conceptions of the phoenix in order to assess Shakespeare's adaptation of that legend. Although Ellrodt adopted the formalist approach, he concluded that Shakespeare's use of the phoenix myth was not derivative, but in fact unique: "a modification of the Phoenix myth which implied disbelief in, or at least disregard for, the timehonoured legend." Like Ellrodt, Peter Dronke provided an interpretation of the poem based on the study of conventional Elizabethan literary thought. In Dronke's view, the poem is a meditation on the notion of love through a careful, balanced consideration of ideas and paradoxes imported from the realms of literary convention. The critic additionally maintained that a sense of immortality or transcendence survives the death of the phoenix and the turtle, because the poem celebrates the eternal quality of love. William H. Matchett represents another strain of critical thought, similar to that of Dronke, that observes Shakespeare's rendering of paradoxical language in The Phoenix and Turtle. For Matchett, "terse diction within disjunct lines," verbal paradox, and a broad use of metaphor combine to create a "texture of complexities and ambiguities" that he saw as the prevailing nature of the poem.
The complex nature of The Phoenix and Turtle has also been perceived as a challenge by many positivist critics who hope to unravel the poem's secrets by examining it in the light of historical evidence from Shakespeare's time. Such criticism draws allegorical significance from real events, taking its cue from Robert Chester's Love's Martyr. In Love 's Martyr, according to earlier critics, Chester equates the phoenix with Queen Elizabeth and the turtle with her rebellious lover, the Earl of Essex. Following this line of thought, Marie Axton, in 1977, maintained that Shakespeare's verse was "a politically philosophical occasional poem" composed in anticipation of "an historical moment of transition"—the succession of Elizabeth I. Axton argued that Shakespeare adopted the iconography and myths of Elizabethan succession drama, specifically the phoenix, to expound his own thoughts on political theory. In essence, according to Axton, The Phoenix and Turtle symbolizes the relationship between monarch and subject, and, perhaps, represents the poet's own view of Elizabeth. Later, Anthea Hume was to expand upon some of Axton's views, focusing on Shakespeare's presentation of this "theme of mutual love" between the monarch and her subjects, presented allegorically in The Phoenix and Turtle.