The Phoenix and Turtle
For further information on the critical history of The Phoenix and Turtle, see SC, Volumes 10, 38, 51, and 64.
Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and Turtle was originally published as part of the 1601 collection Love's Martyr, or Rosalyn's Complaint, compiled by Robert Chester and dedicated to Sir John Salusbury, a patron of the arts. This collection of verse bears the subtitle Allegorically Shadowing the Truth of Love in the Constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle, a reference to the subject of Shakespeare's poem: the funeral of a mythic phoenix and a turtledove, forever linked through their faithfulness and love. The poem features three distinct sections—a twenty-line introduction that summons mourners to the funeral, a thirty-two-line funeral “anthem” that praises the love and beauty of the Phoenix and Turtle, and the concluding fifteen-line “threnos,” a funeral song or lament for the dead.
An enigmatic work that is nevertheless recognized as one of Shakespeare's finest poetic compositions, The Phoenix and Turtle has long puzzled critics, who have sought to unravel its central paradoxes, such as the portrayal of a funeral for a phoenix—a legendary bird capable of resurrection. Other commentators have speculated about possible allegorical links within the poem, equating the Phoenix and Turtle with such historical personages as Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Still others have sought to distinguish the poem's varied metaphysical influences, which range from medieval Scholasticism to Neoplatonic mysticism. The varying critical approaches to The Phoenix and Turtle were first categorized by Heinrich Strauman, who observed in his 1953 Phönix und Taube; zur Interpretation von Shakespeares Gedankenwelt that theories regarding the poem can be divided into roughly three categories: positivist, formalist, and idealist. The positivist approach includes readings that provide an allegorical interpretation of the poem supported by biographical and historical investigation. The formalist method views the poem within the context of its presumed genre, investigating the literary traditions and conventions that may have influenced Shakespeare's composition. The idealist category represents critics who either address the poem in terms of its own themes, without consideration of any literary or historical context, or within the thematic context of Shakespeare's dramatic works. Critical discussion of The Phoenix and Turtle since the mid-twentieth century has tended to fall into one of these categories or to combine two or more of them.
Idealist conceptions of The Phoenix and Turtle have been somewhat rare in late-twentieth-century criticism. Such views are represented by K. T. S. Campbell (1970, see Further Reading), who regards the work as an example of “self-conscious” poetry that principally makes reference to its own world while providing clues about Shakespeare's development as an artist. Formalist readings of the poem have been more prevalent; however, positivist or biographical assessments have been generally disparaged by critics. Responding to positivist evaluations of The Phoenix and Turtle, which he maintains tend to overly sentimentalize or mystify the work, Murray Copland (1965) represents a typical mid-century formalist understanding of Shakespeare's poem. Copland places The Phoenix and Turtle within the tradition of metaphysical poetry exemplified by the work of John Donne, whose use of conventional poetic images was invariably accompanied by an unconventional twist. In the spirit of Donne, Shakespeare employed the image of the phoenix as an inverted stock conceit used to signify not beauty reborn, but beauty suffering a final and irreversible death. In Copland's view, The Phoenix and Turtle dashes abstract, Platonic ideas such as Truth and Beauty and instead depicts a more complex, if no less paradoxical, world. David Seltzer (1961, see Further Reading) considers the work a superlative example of metaphysical poetry and a distillation of the love-tragedy form. J. W. Cunningham (1952, see Further Reading) asserts that Shakespeare employed concepts from medieval theology in crafting the poem's central conceit (the mystical union between the Phoenix and Turtle), arguing that the Scholastic doctrine of the Trinity underlies its diction and structure. A range of literary conventions—from classical mythology to Neoplatonism—inform Peter Dronke's (1968, see Further Reading) study. Dronke finds in the work a sense of immortality or transcendence derived from the eternal quality of love that survives the death of the Phoenix and Turtle. Dissatisfied with evaluations of the poem that tout the term “metaphysical” but fail to adequately address its central enigmas, Marjorie Garber (1984) focuses instead on literary genre. Assessing The Phoenix and Turtle as a work that employs metaphysical paradox to transform the classical funeral elegy into an epithalamium, a poetic celebration of marriage, Garber claims that the poem fuses two generic forms, making the Phoenix's funeral its marriage as well.
Combined critical assessments of The Phoenix and Turtle that draw upon positivist, formalist, and idealist criteria also proved popular in the late-twentieth century. William Empson's (1966) positivist-formalist evaluation of The Phoenix and Turtle calls attention to Shakespeare's composition of this occasional poem for Sir John Salusbury, and the poet's possible thoughts on the “alien” theme of married chastity. The critic, however, dismisses allegorical connections between figures in the poem and historical personages, finding such speculation absurd. Empson also expresses his critical indebtedness to G. Wilson Knight (1955, see Further Reading), who examines the poem's autobiographical background, but generally emphasizes its metaphysical theme of perfected love. John Klause's (2002) assessment of The Phoenix and Turtle places the work within its historical and literary contexts. Klause asks why Shakespeare wrote this particular poem for inclusion in Chester's Love's Martyr. While he denies an allegorical schema for the work, he nevertheless wonders what Shakespeare knew about Sir John Salusbury, its intended recipient. Klause concludes that Shakespeare chose not to pursue the myth of love and constancy devised by Chester to praise his patron, but to create an alternative, one that used the poet's subtle reflections on “Love, Death, and Truth” to denigrate Salusbury rather than to congratulate him. Other critics, including Ronald Bates and John Buxton (1955 and 1980, see Further Reading), have observed in The Phoenix and Turtle Shakespeare's intricately crafted critique of Chester's “clumsily contrived myth” of constant love and beauty.