The Phoenix and Turtle (Vol. 64) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.”

T. W. Baldwin (essay date 1950)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in On the Literary Genetics of Shakespere's Poems & Sonnets, University of Illinois Press, 1950, pp. 363-77.

[In the following essay, Baldwin examines the various sources that Shakespeare drew from in his The Phoenix and Turtle.]

In The Phoenix and the Turtle, Shakspere has taken his pattern from Ovid, Amores II, 6, some material eventually from Lactantius, and has put the whole into the setting of a contemporary funeral.1 We know, of course, of Lesbia's sparrow. But Dominicus assures us,

Psitaci, quem sibi ab orientalibus oris missum, puellae suae donarat...

(The entire section is 5680 words.)

I. A. Richards (essay date 1958)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sense of Poetry: Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in American Critical Essays: Twentieth Century, edited by Harold Beaver, Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 40-51.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1958, Richards closely examines the structure and meaning of The Phoenix and Turtle.]

Is it not fitting that the greatest English poet should have written the most mysterious poem in English? ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ is so strange a poem—even so unlike anything else in Shakespeare, as to have caused doubts that he wrote it. And yet, no one else seems in the least likely as author.

One of the odd...

(The entire section is 2604 words.)

Robert S. McCully (essay date 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Phoenix and the Turtle: A Jungian Interpretation,” in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 187-192.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1962, McCully offers an overview of The Phoenix and Turtle, and examines the spiritual meaning of the poem.]

Shakespeare's poem about the phoenix and the turtle has been said to be one of the least understood poems in the English language. English poets themselves have wondered at its beauty while feeling baffled by its enigma. Perhaps all spontaneous flowing-over of truth and beauty creates its own aura of mystery and escapes the many-holed net of reason. Henry Simon has stated...

(The entire section is 2460 words.)

Brian Green (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Heroic Elixir: A New Context for The Phoenix and Turtle,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1979, pp. 215-23.

[In the following essay, Green examines the “language of alchemy” in The Phoenix and Turtle, and contends that the “alchemical connection clarifies the mode of love in the entire poem.”]

Critics generally recognise the language of scholasticism as an important stylistic context for Shakespeare's Phoenix and Turtle.1 J. V. Cunningham, who formally proposed the context, refers the poem to the Thomist doctrine of the Holy Trinity, i.e., the relationship between the Phoenix and Turtle is...

(The entire section is 4881 words.)

M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Phoenix and Turtle (Cambridge),” in Shakespeare in His Context: The Constellated Globe: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook, Vol. IV, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. 74-91.

[In the following essay, Bradbrook examines the literary and biographical themes in The Phoenix and Turtle.]

Only after the revived taste for Donne and the Metaphysicals did this strangely neglected masterpiece receive its due. Some have called it frigid, a trifle. Middleton Murry in the early 1920s was one of the first to recognise its power, built on paradox yet cunningly avoiding oxymoron. It is exceptionally well attested; it was signed and printed at first in Vatum...

(The entire section is 7072 words.)

Barbara Everett (essay date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Set Upon a Golden Bough to Sing: Shakespeare's Debt to Sidney in The Phoenix and Turtle,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5107, February 16, 2001, pp. 13-15.

[In the following essay, Everett examines the meter and rhyme of The Phoenix and Turtle, and finds that “Shakespeare writes nowhere else—not even in his last plays—quite like this.”]

Shakespeare wrote rather few poems. If we think of the Sonnets as a sequence rather than an amassment (and many scholars do, though there are arguments against it), then the number of short poems dwindles pointedly. Among them, “The Phoenix and Turtle” stands out, and even has a claim to be...

(The entire section is 5370 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bilton, Peter. “Graves on Lovers, and Shakespeare at a Lover's Funeral.” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983): 39-42.

A study of Robert Graves's “The Thieves” as a direct response to The Phoenix and Turtle.

Eriksen, Roy T. “‘Un certo amoroso martire’: Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle and Giordano Bruno's De gli eroici furori.Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual II (1981): 193-215.

Comparison of the bird imagery in The Phoenix and Turtle and Giordano Bruno's De gli eroici furori.

Janakiram, Alur. “Ebreo, Leone and Shakespeare: Love and...

(The entire section is 368 words.)