The Phoenix and Turtle
Shakespeare's The Phoenix and Turtle is a short poem originally published as part of the collection Love's Martyr, compiled by Robert Chester in 1601. The 67-line poem remained untitled until an American edition in 1807 took the name from the two birds whose funeral is described. The central paradoxes of the poem for many scholars are the portrayal of a funeral for the phoenix, whose supernatural character lies in its regenerative power, and the suggestion that the funeral also marks the death of truth and beauty, which has provoked intense speculation on the poem's metaphysical and neo-Platonic influences. Long considered one of Shakespeare's strangest poetic productions and frequently overlooked in favor of the his dramatic works, The Phoenix and Turtle has recently come under scrutiny for its evocation of themes and ideals that animate Shakespeare's plays.
The Phoenix and Turtle portrays the union of two lovers, the phoenix and the turtle-dove, who have died. The Neoplatonic suggestion in the Threnos that truth and beauty are themselves the elements of this union has caused such scholars as Heinrich Straumann (1977) to claim that the poem is at once a celebration of such a union and a statement of its impermanence, a theme he also identifies in Hamlet, Cymbeline, and Romeo and Juliet. The union of the two birds has been interpreted by Brian Green (1979) as using alchemical fusion as an allegory for spiritually pure love. Scholars have disputed the sexual nature of this love-union, and the gender of the birds has remained particularly contested, as G. Wilson Knights details (1955). Dennis Kay (1998) argues that the "self-consuming uniqueness" of this love "implies a rarefied turning away from carnality," while Murray Copland (1965) identifies the metaphysical implications of the poem as merely fashionable trappings of a depiction, in unison with Shakespeare's dramatic works, of a deeply human problem. Using a psychoanalytic approach, Philip K. Bock (1993) reads the poem as an expression of the essential human longing for individuation within unity, a theme that appears most strikingly in Hamlet.
The concern with difference within unity in the poem has attuned interpreters to its Christian elements: particularly its evocation of the Trinity, neo-Platonic love, and its stylistic resemblances to burial services from The Book of Common Prayer, as Richard C. McCoy argues (1997). The mortality of the phoenix, and the fact that there is no offspring of its union with the turtle dove, signifies the continued union of truth and beauty, the poem suggests to many critics, but the irrecoverable loss for human beings of such an ideal. Vincent Petronella (1975) has described The Phoenix and Turtle as a "vision of an overwhelming disaster—the destruction of those values linked with the Phoenix and the Turtle-Dove": constancy and self-sacrifice. He reads the poem as a depiction of "defunctive" mystic ecstasy: it is not the spiritual ecstasy which distances the soul from the body, but that "body and soul are consumed together."
The ideality of the relationship between the phoenix and turtle does not lend itself to the reading that the poem describes the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, the political background that many critics speculate served as the inspiration for the work. Murray Copland insists that "behind the birds an eminently desirable human possibility is being mooted." The poem itself, critics argue, enacts a problematic mediation between the transcendent and the mortal, and emphasizes the unattainability of ideal values in the mortal sphere. Scholarly interest has been rejuvenated in the poem as a complex if condensed expression of metaphysical reflections on love as well as an articulation of the problem of mortality, themes elaborated in many of Shakespeare's major works.