The Phoenix and Turtle (Vol. 51) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Dennis Kay (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: "Miscellaneous Poems: Th e Phoenix and Turtle.'" in William Shakespeare: Sonnets and Poems, Twayne Publishers, 1998, pp. 81-88.

[In the essay that follows, Kay provides a general introductory discussion of the poem, with particular attention to its textual history and critical reception.]

The Phoenix and Turtle is Shakespeare's contribution to Loves Martyr: or, Rosalins Complaint, Allegorically shadowing the Truth of Love, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle (1601), a volume of poems associated with Sir John Salusbury and compiled by Robert Chester. Appended to this work are "Some new compositions, of severall modern writers whose names are subscribed to their several workes, upon the first subject: viz., the Phoenix and Turtle." These modern writers are "Ignoto" (possibly John Donne), Shake—speare, John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jon—son. Shakespeare's poem appears without a title.

Chester's Love's Martyr is an allegorical poem (treating the myth of the phoenix's rebirth from its own ashes) whose occasion and meaning remain obscure. Chester was a member of the household of Sir John Salusbury of Lleweni in Denbigh, North Wales.2 Salusbury was distantly related to Queen Elizabeth. In 1586, he married Ursula, the illegitimate daughter of the fourth earl of Derby; and in 1601, the year Chester's poem was published, he was knighted by the queen. In 1586, just three months before the wedding, Sir John's brother Thomas was executed for treason. One possible reading of Chester's poem and its publication, then, is that it was composed as private consolation at the time of the execution and the marriage in 1586, and then published—with a dazzling group of authors lending their luster to the occasion—at the time of Salusbury's knighthood and the family's rehabilitation in 1601. It is relatively easy to see why the younger poets—each of whom was in need of patronage—might have been drawn to write for Chester's volume in praise of the Salusburys and the queen.

Given the importance of the phoenix in Queen Elizabeth's cult, connections with her have been proposed: many scholars have claimed to find an allegory of her relationship with the earl of Essex, executed in 1601.3 Most commentators support the connection between Chester's poem and the circumstances of Salusbury's wedding in 1586 and suggest that Shakespeare's piece was written at the same time as the other "modern" poems, some time before 1601.4 Nevertheless, such a connection by no means rules out the possibility that the poem was written, or perhaps revised, in the context of the Essex rebellion and the queen's conduct during and after it. Marie Axton's subtle suggestion—that the relationship at the core of the poem involves the queen and her subjects—indicates that a profitable area of study would be the continued exploration of the connections between the poem and the cult of Elizabeth.5

In a radical assault upon received wisdom, E. A. J. Honigmann goes further and argues, as part of his "early-start" view of Shakespeare's writing career, that his poem is much earlier than 1601 and that it should be seen as contemporary with the Salusbury nuptials.6 He makes this argument as part of his attempt to revive and justify the speculation that William Shakespeare was the same person as a William

Shakeshafte, who was a retainer of a gentry household at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire in the 1580s—at a time when the historical record for William Shakespeare is essentially blank.

The Hoghtons of Hoghton Tower were connected with the Stanley earls of Derby. Ursula, who married Salusbury. was the sister of Ferdinando Stanley, also known as Lord Strange, who was later, and briefly, earl of Derby. Lord Strange had a company of players, including at various times Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and, as Honigmann argues, William Shakespeare. Among other pieces of evidence, the presence of compliments to ancestors of the Stanley family in Shakespeare's early history plays may not be accidental.7

From what we know about Shakespeare's early life, Honigmann's theory must remain speculation, but he may have opened up a vein of research that will prove fruitful. Even if Shakespeare's "early start" is not accepted, Honigmann's fuller demonstration of his connection with the Stanley family plausibly connects Shakespeare to the Chester volume. It might also be noted that in 1601 Shakespeare's own relation to the patronage system was clouded in ambiguity. His patron Southampton was sentenced to death in February 1601 in the aftermath of the Essex rebellion and, although reprieved, was to remain in prison for several years. Also in 1601, Shakespeare's father died (buried on 8 September), and shortly afterwards his right to bear the coat of arms that had been granted in 1596 was challenged (albeit unsuccessfully) by the York Herald.8

My following remarks, pending the discovery of further evidence to support Honigmann's claim, assume a later date for The Phoenix and Turtle. Shakespeare's poem owes something to the Eighth Song ("In a grove most rich of shade") in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella and seems to be related in setting and subject to Matthew Roydon's Elegie on Sidney, published in The Phoenix Nest (1593). In themselves these possible connections do not necessarily contradict Honigmann, since Sidney had died in 1586, and Roydon's poem was clearly written quite soon afterwards.9

Shakespeare's poem is brief, a mere 67 short lines disposed in 17 stanzas. The formal components of the piece are immediately apparent. The first of two marked sections consists of 13 four-line stanzas rhymed abba. It is followed by the Threnos, consisting of 5 three-line stanzas. The first section is further divided into two parts, namely an invocation of 5 stanzas followed by the explicit announcement "Here the anthem doth commence" (21). There are some obvious symmetries about this arrangement—5 stanzas of Prologue, 8 of Anthem, 5 of Threnos. Furthermore, the numerical center of the poem is occupied by a stanza expressive of stasis, a still point in defiance of time:

So between them love did shine,
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.


Such features may (or may not) indicate the presence of architectural or numerological structural principles in the poem, just as the line total may (or may not) relate to Queen Elizabeth's age (she turned 68 in September of 1601). The poem also seems to imply some form of ceremonial actuality beyond the imagined procession, with its reference to the "tragic scene" (52), to "this urn" (65), which is "Here" (55).

Shakespeare's poem connects with the end of Chester's piece—which he had evidently read attentively—where from the funeral pyre of the phoenix and turtle rises up a new phoenix in whose heart lives "a perpetual love / Sprong from the bosom of the turtle dove." In other words, before Shakespeare's poem begins, we are to imagine the funeral pyre and the placement of the ashes in the urn.

The beginning invocation, in the tradition of poems (such as Skelton's Philip Sparrow and the rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?") purporting to be funeral masses for dead birds, summons to the burial service the "bird of loudest lay," the swan, the crow, and the presiding eagle, and banishes the screech owl, as well as "Every fowl of tyrant wing." At the head of the procession is the "death-divining swan" in the office of the priest, accompanied by the proverbially long-lived crow, whose breath engenders its offspring. There is a perhaps a suggestion of comprehensiveness in this anthology of birds, with the four elements implied by the crow (the earth), the swan (water), the eagle (the air), and the phoenix (fire) (Roe, 51). Such compendiousness is a common elegiac topos, which was held to be both panegyric and implicitly consolatory. The "bird of loudest lay" ought, of course, to be the phoenix, having risen again; but since we learn that the Phoenix and Turtle left "no posterity" (59), some scholars have argued that it cannot be and is in fact the nightingale, or the crane, or cockerel. Others, with equal confidence, have argued that it must be the phoenix.10

The congregation sings its anthem on the lovers' unity in diversity:

So they loved as love in twain
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.


Shakespeare uses the languages of academic logic and philosophy paradoxically in the service of metaphor and ambiguity—"How true a twain / Seemeth this concordant one!" (45-46). The implication that love can be so powerful as to overwhelm logic and reason is a Shakespearean commonplace, although hardly unique to him. For example, one of the lovers in John Donne's Songs and Sonnets speaks thus to his mistress of the riddle of the phoenix—"We two being one, are it" ("The Canonization").

Much of the interpretive difficulty, as well as much of the richness and strange beauty of the poem, is generated by Shakespeare's attempt to express the mysteries associated with the idea of union. As with many Renaissance writers, he approaches this challenge through the medium of paradox—whereby he conveys through words a meaning that highlights the limitations of words to convey meaning. Commenting on such lines as

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.



Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.


Maurice Evans writes, "This love is something which at once preserves and destroys incompatibility, which simultaneously negates and maintains distinction" (Evans, 55). Many commentators have remarked upon the abstract language—love, constancy, essence, reason, property, and so on. Such terminology, as well as the use of paradox in these stanzas, has given rise to many Neoplatonic readings of the poem.

Shakespeare is vague about the identity of the speakers of the first two sections. The opening set of instructions, with its imperative tone—"Let the bird of loudest lay . . . Let the priest in surplice white"—is followed by an announcement from another unidentified speaker—"Here the anthem doth commence," after which a third speaker, with a more philosophical tone of abstraction and paradox, takes over.

The union of the Phoenix and Turtle is celebrated and defined as a moment in which Reason is" in itself confounded." Reason's response is twofold. First it proclaims, rounding off the anthem with the rhymes that had begun it,

"How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, Reason none,
If what parts, can so remain."


Reason is then allocated the role of "chorus" to the "tragic scene" of the dead lovers and responds with the final Threnos, in which an attempt is made to interpret the miraculous events that have gone before. The passage perhaps recalls Hymen's injunction at the end of As You Like It to "Feed yourself with questioning; / That reason wonder may diminish" (5.4.138-39). At this point in the poem, 52 lines have elapsed, which may be expressive of the completion of an annual cycle as a consoling metaphor for death and continuity.

The core of Reason's second speech, in a style markedly different from its exclamation in the immediate aftermath of the Anthem, is the understanding that the unique union of the Phoenix and Turtle—the logic-defying conjunction of "two distincts," beauty and truth—has left the world. In other words, the Phoenix and Turtle are dead and gone:

Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed in cinders lie.


The self-consuming uniqueness leading to the final, issueless incineration of the Phoenix and Turtle is summed up in the vaguely Neoplatonic phrase "married chastity," which implies a rarefied turning away from carnality. There is an analogous, though less renunciatory, passage in Spenser's Prothalamion (1596), where the poet imagines a blessing being pronounced over the two betrothed couples—

And let your bed with pleasures chast abound,
That fruitfull issue may to you afford,
Which may your foes confound,
And make your joyes redound. . . .

(103-6: Shorter Poems, ed. Oram, 766)

—a wish...

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Love And Romance

(Shakespearean Criticism)

G. Wilson Knight (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Poem," in The Mutual Flame: On Shakespeare's Sonnets and The Phoenix and the Turtle, Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1955, pp. 193-204.

[In the following essay, Knight relates the imagery and the paradoxically tragic regeneration of the Phoenix to the creative process, but rejects a narrow biographical interpretation of the poem.]

This, then, is the context in which we must study Shakespeare's contribution. The Phoenix and the Turtle has received a sensitive handling. John Masefield accorded it high praise in his William Shakespeare (1911). In Discoveries (1924) J. Middleton Murry wrote that 'it gives us the...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard C. McCoy (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Love's Martyr's: Shakespeare's 'Phoenix and Turtle' and the Sacrificial Sonnets," in Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, edited by Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 188-208.

[In the following essay, McCoy studies the combination sacred and earthly elements in The Phoenix and Turtle and suggests the term "relic" to describe the blending of mortality and continued spiritual power.]

In its paradoxical intensity and cryptic brevity, "The Phoenix and Turtle" is one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic works. I. A. Richards calls it "the most mysterious...

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Religious And Mystical Elements

(Shakespearean Criticism)

H. Neville Davies (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "'The Phoenix and Turtle': Requiem and Rite." The Review of English Studies, Vol. XLVI, No. 184, November. 1995. pp. 525-29.

[In the following essay, Davies examines the ritual imagery, specifically its Christian derivation, of The Phoenix and Turtle.]

In Shakespeare's The Phoenix and Turtle, a swan is appointed to officiate as priest at the birds' funeral, 'Lest', as the poem explains, 'the requiem lack his right' (line 16).1 Editors invariably adhere to the spelling of the first edition for the last of those quoted words, though a strong case could be made for replacing 'right' by...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Buxton, John. "Two Dead Birds: A Note on The Phoenix and Turtle." In English Renaissance Studies: Presented to Dame Helen Gardner in honour of her Seventieth Birthday, ed. John Carey, pp. 44-55. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Contends that the poem should be read as "an exhibition of pure poetry" rather than a comment on the political atmosphere of the day.

Hume, Anthea. "Love's Martyr, 'The Phoenix and The Turtle, and the Aftermath of the Essex Rebellion." Review of English Studies XL, No. 157 (February 1989): 48-71.

Reads The Phoenix and Turtle' as a close retelling of the...

(The entire section is 97 words.)