The Phoenix and Turtle
For further information on the critical history of The Phoenix and Turtle, see SC, Volumes 10, 38, and 51.
An enigma for most critics, The Phoenix and Turtle was originally published in 1601 in Loves Martyr, or Rosalyn's Complaint, a volume of poems compiled by Robert Chester. The 67-line poem centers on the funeral of a mythic phoenix and a turtledove, who, although dead, are forever linked through their constancy and love. The poem contains three distinct sections—a 20-line introduction that summons the mourners to the funeral, a 32-line funeral “anthem” that praises the love and beauty of the phoenix and turtle, and the concluding 15-line “threnos,” a funeral song or lament for the dead. As with most of Shakespeare's works, his authorship has come into question, however, most critics now accept its authenticity. Critical reaction to the poem has ranged from disdain to praise, and scholarly theories and interpretations have been varied. Many commentators have taken an allegorical approach, often equating the phoenix with Queen Elizabeth and the turtle with her lover, the Earl of Essex. Other areas of critical concern include the poem’s themes, sources, and relation to Shakespeare’s major works.
One approach to demystifying The Phoenix and Turtle, according to critic I. A. Richards (1959), is to begin fresh, reading the poem for coherence rather than cryptic messages. Richards revisits the poem and offers a close analysis of the literal meaning of words such as “right” and “threnos.” Although this method of looking at word meanings in a contemporary context is useful, the critic acknowledges that it is only the first step to understanding the true meaning of the poem. Robert S. McCully (1962) also attempts to take a fresh look at the poem by applying a Jungian interpretation to the text. The critic carefully examines the verses as well as the allegorical nature of The Phoenix and Turtle and finds that the essence of the poem “seems to have been the transcendent mystery of spiritual union and mystical death.” T. W. Baldwin (1950) identifies two possible sources for The Phoenix and Turtle—Ovid and Lactantius.
Other topics of critical inquiry include the poem’s structure, themes, and its relation to Shakespeare’s major works. In his 1979 study, Brian Green proposes that the language of alchemy infuses The Phoenix and Turtle, and that the alchemical process itself serves as the model for the poem’s structure. Alur Janakiram (see Further Reading) examines the resemblance between The Phoenix and Turtle and the Italian philosopher Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’amore (1535), and explores the conflict between love and reason in Shakespeare’s poem. M. C. Bradbrook discusses the literary and biographical themes in the poem, and warns of the dangers of “biographical investigatory disease, whereby the historical basis takes precedence over the poetry itself.” Barabara Everett (2001) also has a problem with historical and philosophical readings of The Phoenix and Turtle, and instead studies the meter and rhyme of the poem. The critic finds that the conventions and rhetoric in the poem foreshadow Shakespeare’s last plays, but claims that “Shakespeare writes nowhere else—not even in his last plays—quite like this.”