Barnacle-Goose—Blackbird—Buzzard—Chaffinch—Chough—Cock—Cormorant Crow—Cuckoo—Domestic Fowl—Dove—Duck—Eagle—Goldfinch—Goose—Gull—Hawk—Heron—Jay—Kestril—Kingfisher—Lark—Magpie—Martin—Nightingale—Osprey—Ostrich—Owl—Parrot—Peacock—Pelican—Pheasant—Phœnix—Pigeon—Quail—Raven—Robin-Redbreast—Rook—Snipe—Sparrow—Sparrow-Hawk—Starling—Swallow—Swan—Tassel-Gentle—Turkey—Vulture—Wagtail—Wildfowl—Woodcock—Wren.
In the present chapter we have not only a striking proof of Shakespeare's minute acquaintance with natural history, but of his remarkable versatility as a writer. Whilst displaying a most extensive knowledge of ornithology, he has further illustrated his subject by alluding to those numerous legends, popular sayings, and superstitions which have, in this and other countries, clustered round the feathered race. Indeed, the following pages are alone sufficient to show, if it were necessary, how fully he appreciated every branch of antiquarian lore; and what a diligent student he must have been in the pursuit of that wide range of information, the possession of which has made him one of the most many-sided writers that the world has ever seen. The numerous incidental allusions, too, by Shakspeare, to the folk-lore of bygone days, whilst showing how deeply he must have read and gathered knowledge from every available source, serve as an additional proof of his retentive memory, and marvellous power of embellishing his ideas by the most apposite illustrations. Unfortunately, however, these have, hitherto, been frequently lost sight of through the reader's unacquaintance with that extensive field of folk-lore which was so well known to the poet. For the sake of easy reference, the birds with which the present chapter deals are arranged alphabetically.
Barnacle-Goose.—There was a curious notion, very prevalent in former times, that this bird (Anser bernicla) was generated from the barnacle (Leilas anatifera), a shell-fish, growing on a flexible stem, and adhering to loose timber, bottoms of ships, &c., a metamorphosis to which Shakspeare alludes in the "Tempest" (iv. i), where he makes Caliban say—
"We shall lose our time, And all be turn’d to barnacles."
This vulgar error, no doubt, originated in mistaking the fleshy peduncle of the shell-fish for the neck of a goose, the shell for its head, and the tentacula for a tuft of feathers. These shell-fish, therefore, bearing, as seen out of the water, a resemblance to the goose's neck, were ignorantly, and without investigation, confounded with geese themselves. In France, the barnacle-goose may be eaten on fast days, by virtue of this old belief in its fishy origin. Like other fictions this one had its variations, for sometimes the barnacles were supposed to grow on trees, and thence to drop into the sea, and become geese, as in Drayton's account of Furness, (Polyolb. 1622, Song 27, p. 1190). As early as the 12th century this idea was promulgated by Giraldus Cambrensis in his "Topographia Hiberniæ." Gerarde, who in the year 1597 published his "Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes," narrates the following:—"There are found in the north parts of Scotland, and the isles adjacent called Orcades, certain trees, whereon do grow certain shell-fishes, of a white colour, tending to russet, wherein are contained little living creatures; which shells in time of maturity do open, and out of them grow those little living things, which, falling into the water, do become fowls, whom we call barnacles, in the north of England brant geese, and in Lancashire tree geese; but the others that do fall upon the land perish, and do come to nothing. Thus much of the writings of others, and also
from the mouths of people of those parts, which may very well accord with truth. But what our eyes have seen and hands have touched, we shall declare. There is a small island in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders, wherein are found the broken pieces of old ships, some whereof have been cast thither by shipwreck, and also the trunks or bodies, with the branches, of old rotten trees, cast up there likewise, whereon is found a certain spume or froth, that in time breedeth into certain shells, in shape like those of the mussel, but sharper pointed, and of a whitish colour; wherein is contained a thing in form like a lace of silk, one end whereof is fastened unto the inside of the shell, even as the fish of oysters and mussels are. The other end is made fast unto the belly of a rude mass or lump, which in time cometh to the shape and form of a bird; when it is perfectly formed the shell gapeth open, and the first thing that appeareth is the foresaid lace or string; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it groweth greater it openeth the shell by degrees, till at length it is all come forth and hangeth only by the bill. In short space after it cometh to full maturity, and falleth into the sea, where it gathereth feathers and groweth to a fowl, bigger than a mallard, and lesser than a goose; having black legs and bill, or beak, and feathers black and white, spotted in such a manner as is our magpie, which the people of Lancashire call by no other name than a tree goose." An interesting cut of these birds so growing is given by Mr Halliwell-Phillipps from a manuscript of the 14th century, who is of opinion that the barnacle mentioned by Caliban was the tree-goose. It is not to be supposed, however, that there were none who doubted this marvellous story, or who took steps to refute it. Belon, so long ago as 1551, says Mr Harting, and others after him, treated it with ridicule, and a refutation may be found in Willughby's "Ornithology," which was edited by Ray in 1678. This vulgar error is mentioned by many of the old writers. Thus Bishop Hall, in his "Virgidemiarum" (Lib. iv., sat. 2), says:—
"The Scottish barnacle, if I might choose,
That of a worme doth waxe a winged goose."
Butler, too, in his "Hudibras," (III., ii. 1. 655), speaks of it; and Marston, in his "Malecontent," (1604), has the following:—"Like your Scotch barnacle, now a block, instantly a worm, and presently a great goose."
Blackbird—This favourite is called in the "Midsummer Night's Dream" (iii. 1.) an ousel, (old French, oisel), a term still used in the neighbourhood of Leeds:—
"The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange tawny bill."
In the 2d part of King Henry IV. (iii. 2) when Justice Shallow inquires of Justice Silence, "And how doth my cousin?" he is answered—
"Alas, a black ousel, cousin Shallow," a phrase which, no doubt, corresponded to our modern one, a "black sheep." In Spenser's "Epithalamium" (1. 82), the word occurs—
"The ousel shrills, the ruddock warbles soft."
Buzzard.—Mr Staunton suggests that in the following passage of the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), a play is intended upon the words, and that in the second line, "buzzard" means a beetle from its peculiar buzzing noise—
"O slow-wing’d turtle! shall a buzzard take thee?
Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard."
The beetle was formerly called a buzzard; and in Staffordshire, a cock-chafer is termed a hum-buz. In Northamptonshire, we find a proverb, "I'm between a hawk and a buzzard," which means, "I don't know what to do, or how to act."
Chaffinch.—Some think that this bird is alluded to in the song in the "Midsummer Night's Dream" (iii. 1), where the expression "Finch" is used; the chaffinch having always been a favourite cage bird with the lower-classes. In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1), Thersites calls Patroclus a "finch-egg," which was evidently meant as a term of reproach. Others again consider the phrase is equivalent to coxcomb.
Chough.—In using this word, Shakespeare probably in most cases meant the jackdaw; for in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (iii. 2), he says—
"Russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun's report."
the term russet-pated being applicable to the jackdaw, but not to the real chough. In "1 Henry IV." (v. 1), Prince Henry calls Falstaff chewet—"Peace, chewet, peace"—in allusion no doubt to the chough or jackdaw, for common birds have always had a variety of names. Such an appellation would be a proper reproach to Falstaff, for his meddling and impertinent talk. Steevens, and Malone, however, finding that chewets were little round pies made of minced meat, thought that the Prince compared Falstaff for his unseasonable chattering, to a minced pie. Cotgrave describes the French "chouette;" as an owlet; also, a "chough," which many consider to be the simple and satisfactory explanation of chewet. Belon in his "History of Birds" (Paris, 1855), speaks of the chouette as the smallest kind of chough or crow. Again, in "1 Henry IV." (ii. 2), in the amusing scene where Falstaff, with the Prince and Poins, meet to rob the travellers at Gadshill, Falstaff calls the victims "fat chuffs," probably, says Mr Harting, who connects the word with chough, from their strutting about with much noise. Nares, too, in his explanation of chuff, says, that some suppose it to be from chough which is similarly pronounced, and means a kind of sea-bird generally esteemed a stupid one. Various other meanings are given. Thus, Mr Gifford affirms that chuff is always used in a bad sense, and means "a coarse unmannered clown, at once sordid and wealthy;" and Mr Halliwell-Phillipps explains it as spoken in contempt for a fat person. In Northamptonshire, we find the word chuff used to denote a person in good condition, as in Clare's "Village Minstrel"—
"His chuff cheeks dimpling in a fondling smile."
Shakespeare alludes to the practice of teaching choughs to talk, although from the following passages he does not appear to have esteemed their talking powers of much value, for in "All's Well that Ends Well" (iv. 1), he says—
"Choughs’ language, gabble enough, and good enough."
And in Tempest (ii. 1), he represents Antonio as saying—
"There be that can rule Naples
As well as he that sleeps; lords that can prate
As amply and unnecessarily
As this Gonzalo; I myself could make
A chough of as deep chat."
Shakespeare always refers to the jackdaw as the "daw." The chough or jackdaw was one of the birds considered ominous by our forefathers, an allusion to which occurs in "Macbeth" (iii. 4.)—
"Augurs and understood relations have,
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood."
At the present day this bird is not without its folklore, and there is a Norwich rhyme to the following effect —
"When three daws are seen on St Peter's vane together,
Then we're sure to have bad weather."
In the north, too, of England the flight of jackdaws down the chimney is held to presage death.
Cock.—The beautiful notion which represents the cock as crowing all night long on Christmas Eve, and by its vigilance dispelling every kind of malignant spirit and evil influence, is graphically mentioned in "Hamlet" (i. 1), where Marcellus, speaking of the ghost, says—
"It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes,
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time."
In short, there is a complete prostration of the powers of darkness; and thus, for the time being, mankind is said to be released from the influence of all those evil forces which otherwise exert such sway. The notion that spirits fly at cock-crow is very ancient, and is mentioned by the Christian poet Prudentius, who flourished in the beginning of the fourth century. There is also a hymn, said to have been composed by St Ambrose, and formerly used in the Salisbury Service, which so much resembles the following speech of Horatio (i. 1), that one might almost suppose Shakespeare had seen it —
"The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine."
This disappearance of spirits at cock-crow is further alluded to (i. 2)—
"The morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away,
And vanish’d from our sight."
Blair, too, in his "Grave" has these graphic words—
Of horrid apparition, tall and ghastly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O’er some new-open’d grave, and strange to tell,
Evanishes at crowing of the cock."
This superstition has not entirely died out in England, and a correspondent of "Notes and Queries" relates an amusing legend current in Devonshire:—"Mr N. was a squire who had been so unfortunate as to sell his soul to the Devil, with the condition that after his funeral the fiend should take possession of his skin. He had also persuaded a neighbour to be present on the occasion of the flaying. On the death of Mr N. this man went in a state of great alarm to the parson of the parish and asked his advice. By him he was told to fulfil his engagement, but he must be sure and carry a cock into the church with him. On the night after the funeral the man proceeded to the church armed with the cock, and, as an additional security, took up his position in the parson's pew. At twelve o'clock the devil arrived, opened the grave, took the corpse from the coffin, and flayed it. When the operation was concluded he held the skin up before him and remarked, 'Well, ’twas not worth coming for after all, for it is all full of holes!' As he said this, the cock crew, whereupon the fiend, turning round to the man, exclaimed, 'If it had not been for the bird you have got there under your arm, I would have your skin too!' But, thanks to the cock, the man got home safe again." Various origins have been assigned to this superstition, which Hampson 2 regards as a misunderstood tradition of some Sabæan fable. The cock, he adds, which seems by its early voice to call forth the sun, was esteemed a sacred solar bird, hence it was also sacred to Mercury, one of the personifications of the sun.
A very general amusement up to the end of the last century was cock-fighting, a diversion of which mention is occasionally made by Shakespeare, as in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 3)—
"His cocks do win the battle still of mine,
When it is all to nought."
And again Hamlet says (v. 2)—
"O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit"
—meaning the poison triumphs over him, as a cock over his beaten antagonist. Formerly, cock-fighting entered into the occupations of the old and young. Schools had their cockfights. Travellers agreed with coachmen that they were to wait a night if there was a cock-fight in any town through which they passed. When country gentlemen had sat long at table, and the conversation had turned upon the relative merits of their several birds, a cockfight often resulted, as the birds in question were brought for the purpose into the dining-room. Cock-fighting was practised on Shrove Tuesday to a great extent, and, in the time of Henry VII., seems to have been practised within the precincts of Court. The earliest mention of this pastime in England is by Fitzstephens, in 1191. Happily, now-a-days, cock-fighting is by law a misdemeanour, and punishable by penalty. One of the popular terms for a cock beaten in a fight was "a craven," to which we find a reference in the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1)—"No cock of mine; you crow too like a craven." We may also compare the expression in Henry V. (iv. 7)—"He is a craven and a villain else." In the old appeal or wager of battle, in our common law, we are told, on the authority of Lord Coke, that the party who confessed himself wrong, or refused to fight, was to pronounce the word cravent, and judgment was at once given against him. Singer 3 says the term may be satisfactorily traced from crant, créant, the old French word for an act of submission. It is so written in the old metrical romance of "Ywaine and Gawaine" (Ritson i. 133)—
"Or yelde the til us als creant."
and in "Richard Coeur de Lion" (Weber ii. 208)—
"On knees he fel down, and cryde, crêaunt."
It then became cravant, cravent, and at length craven.
In the time of Shakespeare, the word cock was used as a vulgar corruption or purposed disguise of the name of God, an instance of which occurs in Hamlet (iv. 5)—"By cock, they are to blame." This irreverent alteration of the sacred name is found at least a dozen times in Heywood's "Edward the Fourth," where one passage is—
"Herald—Sweare on this booke, King Lewis, so help you God,
You mean no otherwise then you have said.
King Lewis—So helpe me Cock as I dissemble not."
We find, too, other allusions to the sacred name, as in "cock's-passion," "cock's-body;" as in "Taming of the Shrew" (iv. i)—"Cock's passion, silence!" A not uncommon oath, too, in Shakespeare's time was "Cock and pie"—cock referring to God, and pie being supposed to mean the service-book of the Romish Church; a meaning which, says Mr Dyce, seems much more probable than Douce's supposition that this oath was connected with the making of solemn vows by knights in the days of chivalry, during entertainments, at which a roasted peacock was served up. It is used by Justice Shallow (2 Henry IV., v. 1)—"By cock and pye, sir, you shall not away to-night." We may also compare the expression in the old play of "Soliman and Perseda" (1599)—"By cock and pye and mousefoot." Mr Harting says the "Cock and Pye" (i.e., magpie) was an ordinary ale-house sign, and may have thus become a subject for the vulgar to swear by.
The phrase, "Cock-a-hoop," which occurs in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 5)—
"You'll make a mutiny among my guests!
You will set cock-a-hoop! you'll be the man!"
—no doubt refers to a reckless person, who takes the cock or tap out of a cask, and lays it on the top or hoop of the barrel, thus letting all the contents of the cask run out. Formerly, a quart pot was called a hoop, being formed of staves bound together with hoops like barrels. There were generally three hoops to such a pot; hence, in "2 Henry VI." (iv. 2), one of Jack Cade's popular reformations was to increase their number, "The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer." Some, however, consider the term Cock-a-hoop refers to the boastful crowing of the cock.
In "King Lear" (iii. 2) Shakespeare speaks of the "cataracts and hurricanoes" as having—
"Drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!"
Vanes on the tops of steeples were in days gone by made in the form of a cock—hence weathercocks—and put up, in papal times, to remind the clergy of watchfulness. Apart, too, from symbolism, the large tail of the cock was well adapted to turn with the wind.
Cormorant.—The proverbial voracity of this bird gave rise to a man of large appetite being likened to it, a sense in which Shakespeare employs the word, as in "Coriolanus" (i. 1)—"The cormorant belly;" in "Love's Labour's Lost" (i. 1)—"Cormorant devouring time;" and in "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 2)—"This cormorant war." "Although," says Mr Harting, "Shakespeare mentions the cormorant in several of his plays, he has nowhere alluded to the sport of using these birds, when trained, for fishing; a fact which is singular, since he often speaks of the then popular pastime of hawking, and he did not die until some years after James I. had made fishing with cormorants a fashionable amusement."
Crow.—This has from the earliest times been reckoned a bird of bad omen; and in "Julius Cæsar," (v. 1), Cassius, on the eve of battle, predicted a defeat, because, to use his own words:—
"Crows and kites
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost."
Allusions to the same superstition occur in "Troilus and Cressida" (i. 2); "King John" (v. 2), etc. Virgil (Bucolic i., 18), mentions the croaking of the crow as a bad omen:—
"Sæpe sinistra cava prædixit ab ilice cornix."
And Butler in his "Hudibras" (part ii, canto 3), remarks:—
"Is it not ominous in all countries,
When crows and ravens croak upon trees."
Even children now-a-days regard with no friendly feelings this bird of ill-omen; 1 and in the north of England there is a rhyme to the following effect:—
"Crow, crow, get out of my sight,
Or else I'll eat thy liver and lights."
Among other allusions, mentioned by Shakspeare, to the crow, may be noticed the crow-keeper—a person employed to drive away crows from the fields. At present, in all the midland counties, a boy set to drive away the birds is said to keep birds; hence, a stuffed figure, now called a scare-crow, was also called a crow-keeper, as in "King Lear" (iv. 6):—
"That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper."
One of Tusser's directions for September is—
"No sooner a-sowing, but out by-and-by,
With mother or boy that alarum can cry:
And let them be armed with a sling or a bow,
To scare away pigeon, the rook, or the crow."
In "Romeo and Juliet," (i. 4), a scare-crow seems meant—
"Bearing a Tartar's painted bow of lath,
Scaring the ladies like a crow-keeper."
Among further references to this practice, is that in "1 Henry VI." (i. 4), where Lord Talbot relates that, when a prisoner in France, he was publicly exhibited in the market-place:—
"Here, said they, is the terror of the French,
The scarecrow that affrights our children so."
And once more, in "Measure for Measure," (ii. 1):—
"We must not make a scare-crow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror."
The phrase "to pluck a crow" is to complain good-naturedly but reproachfully, and to threaten retaliation. It occurs in "Comedy of Errors," (iii. 1):—"We'll pluck a crow together." Sometimes the word pull is substituted for pluck, as in Butler's "Hudibras," part ii. canto 2:—
"If not, resolve before we go
That you and I must pull a crow."
The crow has been regarded as the emblem of darkness, which has not escaped the notice of Shakspeare, who in "Pericles" (iv. introd.), speaking of the white dove, says:—
"With the dove of Paphos might the crow
Vie feathers white."
Cuckoo.—Many superstitions have clustered round the cuckoo, and both in this country and abroad it is looked upon as a mysterious bird, being supposed to possess the gift of second sight, a notion referred to in "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2):—
"Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear."
And again, in "Midsummer Night's Dream," (iii. 1), Bottom sings:—
"The plain-song cuckoo gray,
Whose note full many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay."
It is still a common idea that the cuckoo, if asked, will tell anyone, by the repetition of its cries, how long he has to live. The country lasses in Sweden count the cuckoo's call to ascertain how many years they have to remain unmarried, but they generally shut their ears and run away on hearing it a few times. Among the Germans the notes of the cuckoo, when heard in spring for the first time, are considered a good omen. Cæsarius (A.D. 1222), tells us of a convertite who was about to become a monk, but changed his mind on hearing the cuckoo's call, and counting twenty-two repetitions of it. "Come," said he, "I have certainly twenty-two years still to live, and why should I mortify myself during all that time. I will go back to the world, enjoy its delights for twenty years, and devote the remaining two to penitence." In England, the peasantry salute the cuckoo with the following invocation:—
Good bird tell me,
How many years have I to live."
the allusion to the cherry-tree having probably originated in the popular fancy, that before the cuckoo ceases its song, it must eat three good meals of cherries. Pliny mentions the belief, that when the cuckoo came to maturity, it devoured the bird which had reared it; a superstition several times alluded to by Shakespeare. Thus, in "King Lear," (i. 4) the Fool remarks—
"The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it's had it head bit off by it young."
Again, in "1 Henry IV." (v. 1), Worcester says—
"And being fed by us you used us so
As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo's bird,
Useth the sparrow; did oppress our nest;
Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk
That even our love durst not come near your sight
For fear of swallowing."
Once more, the opinion that the cuckoo made no nest of its own, but laid its eggs in that of another bird, is mentioned in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 6):—
"Thou dost o’er-count me of my father's house;
But, since the cuckoo builds not for himself,
Remain in’t as thou mayst."
It has been remarked, however, in reference to the common idea that the young cuckoo illtreats its foster mother, that if we watch the movements of the two birds, when the younger is being fed, we cannot much wonder at this piece of folk-lore. When the cuckoo opens its great mouth, the diminutive nurse places her own head so far within its precincts, that it has the exact appearance of a voluntary surrender to decapitation.
The notion "which couples the name of the cuckoo with the character of the man whose wife is unfaithful to him, appears to have been derived from the Romans, and is first found in the middle ages in France, and in the countries of which the modern language is derived from the Latin. But the ancients more correctly gave the name of the bird, not to the husband of the faithless wife, but to her paramour, who might justly be supposed to be acting the part of the cuckoo. They applied the name of the bird in whose nest the cuckoo's eggs were usually deposited—'carruca'—to the husband. It is not quite clear how, in the passage from classic to mediæval, the application of the term was transferred to the husband." In further allusion to this bird, we may quote the following from "All's Well that Ends Well" (i. 3):—
"For I the ballad will repeat,
Which men full true will find,
Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind."
The cuckoo has generally been regarded as the harbinger of spring, and according to a Gloucestershire rhyme—
"The cuckoo comes in April,
Sings a song in May;
Then in June another tune,
And then she flies away."
Thus, in "1 Henry IV." (iii. 2), Henry IV., alluding to his predecessor, says—
"So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded."
In "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2), spring is maintained by the cuckoo, in those charming sonnets descriptive of the beauties of the country at this season.
The word cuckoo has, from the earliest times, been used as a term of reproach; and Plautus has introduced it on more than one occasion. In this sense we find it quoted by Shakespeare in "1 Henry IV." (ii. 4):—"O’ horseback, ye cuckoo." The term cuckold, too, which so frequently occurs throughout Shakespeare's Plays, is generally derived from cuculus; from the practice already alluded to of depositing its eggs in other birds’ nests.
Domestic Fowl.—In the "Tempest" (v. 1), the word chick is used as a term of endearment, "Nay arise, chick, &c.;" and in "Macbeth" (iv. 3), Macduff speaks of his children as "all my pretty chickens." In "Coriolanus" (v. 3), hen is applied to a woman—"Poor hen, fond of no second brood;" and in "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), Petruchio says, "So Kate will be my hen;" and, once more, "1 Henry IV." (iii. 3), Falstaff says, "How now, Dame Partlet, the hen?" In "Othello" (i. 3), Iago applies the term "guinea-hen" to Desdemona, a cant phrase in Shakespeare's day for a fast woman.
Dove.—Among the many beautiful allusions to this bird we may mention one in "Hamlet" (v. 1), where Shakespeare speaks of the dove only laying two eggs.
"As patient as the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclosed."
The young nestlings, when first disclosed, are only covered with a yellow down, and the mother rarely leaves the nest, in consequence of the tenderness of her young; hence the dove has been made an emblem of patience. In "2 Henry IV." (iv. 1), it is spoken of as the symbol of peace—"The dove, and very blessed spirit of peace;" and in the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), we find the expression "as modest as the dove." Its love, too, is several times referred to, as in "Romeo" (ii. 1), "Pronounce but—'love' and 'dove';" and in "1 Henry VI." (ii. 2), Burgundy says—
"Like to a pair of loving turtle-doves,
That could not live asunder day or night."
This bird has, also, been regarded as the emblem of fidelity, as in the following graphic passage in "Troilus and Cressida" (iii. 2):—
"As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to the centre."
and in "Winter's Tale" (iv. 4), we read—"Turtles pair, that never mean to part." Its modesty is alluded to in the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1)—"Modest as the dove;" and its innocence in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 1), is mentioned, where King Henry says—
"Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent
From meaning treason to our royal person
As is the sucking lamb or harmless dove:
The duke is virtuous, mild and too well given
To dream on evil or to work my downfall."
The custom of giving a pair of doves or pigeons as a present or peace-offering, is alluded to in "Titus Andronicus" (iv. 4), where the Clown says, "God and Saint Stephen give you good den: I have brought you a letter and a couple of pigeons here;" and when Gobbo tried to find favour with Bassanio in "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 2), he began by saying—"I have here a dish of doves, that I would bestow on your worship." Shakespeare alludes in several places to the "doves of Venus," as in "Venus and Adonis:"—
"Thus weary of the world, away she (Venus) hies,
And yokes her silver doves; by whose swift aid
Their mistress mounted through the empty skies
In her light chariot quickly is conveyed;
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself and not be seen."
and in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (i. 1), where Hermia speaks of "the simplicity of Venus’ doves." This will also explain, says Mr Harting, the reference to "the dove of Paphos" in "Pericles" (iv., Introduction). The towns of Old and New Paphos are situated on the south-west extremity of the coast of Cyprus. Old Paphos is the one generally referred to by the poets, being the peculiar seat of the worship of Venus, who was fabled to have been wafted thither, after her birth amid the waves. The "dove of Paphos" may therefore be considered as synonymous with the "dove of Venus."
Mahomet, we are told, had a dove, which he used to feed with wheat out of his ear; when hungry, the dove lighted on his shoulder, and thrust its bill in to find its breakfast;—Mahomet persuading the rude and simple Arabians that it was the Holy Ghost that gave him advice. Hence, in "1 Henry VI." (i. 2), the question is asked—
"Was Mahomet inspired with a dove?"
Duck.—A barbarous pastime in Shakespeare's time was hunting a tame duck in the water with spaniels. For the performance of this amusement it was necessary to have recourse to a pond of water sufficiently extensive to give the duck plenty of room for making its escape from the dogs when closely pursued: which it did by diving as often as any of them came near it, hence the following allusion in "Henry V." (ii. 3)—
"And hold-fast is the only dog, my duck."
"To swim like a duck" is a common proverb, which occurs in the "Tempest" (ii. 2), where Trinculo, in reply to Stephano's question how he escaped, says: "Swum ashore, man, like a duck; I can swim like a duck, I'll be sworn."
Eagle.—From the earliest time this bird has been associated with numerous popular fancies and superstitions, many of which have not escaped the notice of Shakspeare. A notion of very great antiquity attributes to it the power of gazing at the sun undazzled, to which Spenser in his "Hymn of Heavenly Beauty" refers:—
"And like the native brood of eagle's kind,
On that bright sun of glory fix thine eyes."
In "Love's Labour's Lost," (iv. 3), Biron says of Rosaline:—
"What peremptory eagle-sighted eye
Dares look upon the heaven of her brow,
That is not blinded by her majesty?"
And in 3 Henry VI. (ii. 1), Richard says to Edward, Prince of Wales:—
"Nay, if thou be that princely eagle's bird,
Show thy descent by gazing 'gainst the sun."
The French naturalist, Lacepede, has calculated that the clearness of vision in birds is nine times more extensive than that of the farthest-sighted man. The eagle, too, has always been proverbial for its great power of flight, and on this account has had assigned to it the sovereignty of the feathered race. Aristotle and Pliny both record the legend of the wren disputing for the crown, a tradition which is still found in Ireland: —The birds all met together one day and settled among themselves that whichever of them could fly highest was to be the king of them all. Well, just as they were starting, the little rogue of a wren perched itself on the eagle's tail. So they flew and flew ever so high, till the eagle was miles above all the rest, and could not fly another stroke, for he was so tired. "Then," says he, "I'm the king of the birds," says he; "hurroo!" "You lie," says the wren, darting up a perch and a-half above the big fellow. The eagle was so angry to think how he was outwitted by the wren, that when the latter was coming down he gave him a stroke of his wing, and from that day the wren has never been able to fly higher than a hawthorn bush. The swiftness of the eagle's flight is spoken of in "Timon of Athens," (i. 1):—
"An eagle flight, bold, and forth on,
Leaving no track behind."
The great age, too, of the eagle is well known; and the words of the psalmist are familiar to most readers:—
"His youth shall be renewed like the eagle's."
Apemantus, however, asks of Timon ("Timon of Athens," iv. 3):—
"Will these moss’d trees,
That have outlived the eagle, page thy heels,
And skip where thou point’st out?"
Tuberville, in his "Book of Falconry," 1575, says that the great age of this bird has been ascertained from the circumstance of its always building its eyrie or nest in the same place. The Romans considered the eagle a bird of good omen, and its presence in time of battle was supposed to foretell victory. Thus, in "Julius Cæsar," (v. 1), we read:—
"Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell; and there they perch’d,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands."
It was selected for the Roman legionary standard, through being the king and most powerful of all birds. As a bird of good omen it is mentioned also in "Cymbeline," (i. 1):—
"I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock."
and in another scene (iv. 2), the Soothsayer relates how "Last night the very gods shew’d me a vision": thus:—
"I saw Jove's bird, the Roman eagle, wing’d
From the spongy south to this part of the west,
There vanish’d in the sunbeams: which portends
(Unless my sins abuse my divination),
Success to th’ Roman host."
The conscious superiority of the eagle is depicted by Tamora in "Titus Andronicus," (iv. 4):—
"The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
And is not careful what they mean thereby,
Knowing that with the shadow of his wing,
He can at pleasure stint their melody."
Goose.—This bird was the subject of many quaint proverbial phrases often used in the old popular writers. Thus, a tailor's goose was a jocular name for his pressing iron, probably from its being often roasting before the fire, an allusion to which occurs in "Macbeth," (ii. 3):—
"Come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose."
The "wild-goose chase," which is mentioned in "Romeo and Juliet" (ii. 4)—
"Mercutio—Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done."
—was a kind of horse-race, which resembled the flight of wild-geese. Two horses were started together, and whichever rider could get the lead, the other was obliged to follow him over whatever ground the foremost jockey chose to go. That horse which could distance the other won the race. This reckless sport is enumerated by Burton, in his "Anatomy of Melancholy," as a recreation much in vogue in his time among gentlemen. The term, "Winchester goose," was a cant phrase for a certain venereal disease, because the stews in Southwark were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, to whom Gloucester tauntingly applies the term in the following passage ("1 Henry VI.," i. 3):—
"Winchester goose, I cry, a rope! a rope!"
In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 10), there is a further allusion—
"Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss."
Ben Jonson calls it—
"The Winchestrian goose,
Bred on the banke in time of Popery,
When Venus there maintain’d the mystery."
"Plucking geese" was formerly a barbarous sport of boys ("Merry Wives of Windsor," v. 1), which consisted in stripping a living goose of its feathers.
In "Coriolanus" (i. 4), the goose is spoken of as the emblem of cowardice. Marcius says—
"You souls of geese,
That hear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat."
Goldfinch.—The Warwickshire name for this bird is "Proud Tailor," to which, some commentators think, the words in "1 Henry IV." (iii. 1) refer
"Lady P.—I will not sing.
Hotsp.—’Tis the next way to turn tailor, or be red-breast teacher."
It has, therefore, been suggested that the passage should be read thus—"’Tis the next way to turn tailor, or red-breast teacher," i.e., "to turn teacher of goldfinches or redbreasts." 2 Singer, 3 however, explains the words thus—"Tailors, like weavers, have ever been remarkable for their vocal skill. Percy is jocular in his mode of persuading his wife to sing; and this is a humorous turn which he gives to his argument, 'Come, sing.' 'I will not sing.' '’Tis the next (i.e., the readiest, nearest) way to turn tailor, or redbreast teacher'—the meaning being, to sing is to put yourself upon a level with tailors and teachers of birds."
Gull.—Shakespeare often uses this word as synonymous with fool. Thus in Henry V. (iii. 6), he says—
"Why, ’tis a gull, a fool."
The same play upon the word occurs in "Othello" (v. 2), and in "Timon of Athens" (ii. 1). In "Twelfth Night" (v. 1), Malvolio asks—
"Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,.
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention played on? tell me why."
It is also used to express a trick or imposition, as in "Much Ado About Nothing" (ii. 3)—"I should think this a gull, but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it." 1 "Gull-catchers," or "gull-gropers," to which reference is made in "Twelfth Night"(ii. 5), where Fabian, on the entry of Maria, exclaims—
"Here comes my noble gull-catcher."
were the names by which sharpers were known in Shakespeare's time. The "gull-catcher" was generally an old usurer, who lent money to a gallant at an ordinary, who had been unfortunate in play. 4 Decker devotes a chapter to this character in his "Lanthorne and Candle-light," 1612. According to him, "the gull-groper is commonly an old monymonger, who having travailed through all the follyes of the world in his youth, knowes them well, and shunnes them in his age, his whole felicitie being to fill his bags with golde and silver." The person so duped was termed a gull, and the trick also. In that disputed passage in the "Tempest" (ii. 2), where Caliban, addressing Trinculo, says—
"Sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock."
some think that the sea-mew, or sea-gull, is intended, sea-mall, or sea-mell, being still a provincial name for this bird. Mr Stevenson, in his "Birds of Norfolk" (ii. p. 260), tells us that "the female bar-tailed godwit is called a 'scammell' by the gunners of Blakeney. But as this bird is not a rock-breeder, 6 it cannot be the one intended in the present passage, if we regard it as an accurate description from a naturalist's point of view." Holt says that "scam" is a limpet, and scamell probably a diminutive. Mr Dyce 7 reads "Scamels," i.e., the kestrel, stannel, or windhover, which breeds in rocky situations, and high cliffs on our coasts. He also further observes that this accords well with the context "from the rock," and adds that staniel or staunyel occurs in "Twelfth Night" (ii. 5), where all the old editions exhibit the gross misprint, "stallion."
Hawk.—The diversion of catching game with hawks was very popular in Shakespeare's time, and hence, as might be expected, we find many scattered allusions to it throughout his plays. The training of a hawk for the field was an essential part of the education of a young Saxon nobleman; and the present of a well-trained hawk was a gift to be welcomed by a king. Edward the Confessor spent much of his leisure time in either hunting or hawking; and in the reign of Edward III. we read how the Bishop of Ely attended the service of the church at Bermondsey, Southwark, leaving his hawk in the cloister, which in the meantime was stolen—the bishop solemnly excommunicating the thieves. On one occasion Henry VIII. met with a serious accident when pursuing his hawk at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. In jumping over a ditch, his pole broke, and he fell headlong into the muddy-water, where he was with some difficulty rescued by one of his followers. Sir Thomas Moore, writing in the reign of Henry VIII., describing the state of manhood, makes a young man say—
"Man-hod I am, therefore I me delyght
To hunt and hawke, to nourish up and fede
The greyhounde to the course, the hawke to th’ flight,
And to bestryde a good and lusty stede."
In noticing then, Shakespeare's allusions to this sport, we have a good insight into its various features, and also gain a knowledge of the several terms associated with it. Thus frequent mention is made of the word "haggard"—a wild untrained hawk—and in the following allegory ("Taming of the Shrew," iv. 1), where it occurs, much of the knowledge of falconry is comprised:—
"My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites,
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not."
Further allusions occur in "Twelfth Night" (iii. 1), where Viola says of the Clown:—
"This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye."
In "Much Ado about Nothing," Hero (iii. 1), speaking of Beatrice says that—
"her spirits are as coy and wild
As haggerds of the rock."
And Othello (iii. 3), mistrusting Desdemona, and likening her to a hawk, exclaims—
"If I do prove her haggard,—
I’ld whistle her off."
The word "check" alluded to above was a term in falconry applied to a hawk when she forsook her proper game and followed some other of inferior kind that crossed her in her flight 3—being mentioned again in Hamlet (iv. 7), where the king says—
"If he be now return’d,
As checking at his voyage."
Another common expression used in falconry is "tower," applied to certain hawks, etc., which tower aloft, soar spirally to a height in the air, and thence swoop upon their prey. In "Macbeth" (ii. 4), we read of "a falcon, towering in her pride of place;" in "2 Henry VI." (ii. 1), Suffolk says, "My lord protector's hawks do tower so well;" and in "King John" (v. 2), the Bastard says, "And, like an eagle o’er his aery 1 towers."
The word "quarry" which occurs several times in Shakespeare's plays, in some instances, means the "game or prey sought." The etymology has, says Nares, been variously attempted, but with little success. It may, perhaps, originally have meant the square, or inclosure (carrée) into which the game was driven (as is still practised in other countries), and hence the application of it to the game there caught, would be a natural extension of the term. Randle Holme, in his "Academy of Armory" (Book II., c. xi. p. 240), defines it as "the fowl which the hawk flyeth at, whether dead or alive." It was also equivalent to a heap of slaughtered game, as in the following passages. In "Coriolanus" (i. 1), Caius Marcius says—"I’ld make a quarry with thousands of these quarter’d slaves." In "Macbeth" (iv. 3) 2 we read "The quarry of these murder’d deer," and in "Hamlet" (v. 2), "This quarry cries on havoc."
Another term in falconry is "stoop," or "swoop,'' denoting the hawk's violent descent from a height upon its prey. In "Taming of the Shrew" (iv. 1) the expression occurs, "Till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged." In "Henry V." (iv. 1), King Henry, speaking of the king, says, "Though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing." In "Macbeth," too (iv. 3), Macduff, referring to the cruel murder of his children, exclaims, "What! at one fell swoop?" 1 Webster, in the "White Devil," 2 says—
"If she [i.e., Fortune] give aught, she deals it in small parcels,
That she may take away all at one swoop."
Shakespeare gives many incidental allusions to the hawk's trappings. Thus in "Lucreece" he says—
"Harmless Lucretia, marking what he tells
With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcon's bells."
And in "As You Like It" (iii. 3) , Touchstone says, "As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires." The object of these bells was to lead the falconer to the hawk when in a wood or out of sight. In Heywood's play entitled, "A Woman Killed with Kindness," 1617, is a hawking scene, containing a striking allusion to the hawk's bells. The dress of the hawk consisted of a close-fitting hood of leather or velvet, enriched with needle-work, and surmounted with a tuft of coloured feathers, for use as well as ornament, inasmuch as they assisted the hand in removing the hood when the birds for the hawk's attack came in sight. Thus in "Henry V." (iii. 7), the Constable of France, referring to the valour of the Dauphin, says, "’Tis a hooded valour, and when it appears it will bate." 5 And again, in "Romeo and Juliet" (iii. 2), Juliet says—
"Hood my unmann’d blood, bating 6 in my cheeks."
The "jesses" were two short straps of leather or silk, which were fastened to each leg of a hawk, to which was attached a swivel from which depended the leash or strap which the falconer 1 twisted round his hand. Othello (iii. 3), says
"Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings."
We find several allusions to the training of hawks. They were usually trained by being kept from sleep, it having been customary for the falconers to sit up by turns and "watch" the hawk, and keep it from sleeping, sometimes for three successive nights. Desdemona in "Othello" (iii. 3), says—
"My lord shall never rest;
I'll watch him tame and talk him out of patience;
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift;
I'll intermingle every thing he does
With Cassio's suit."
So in Cartwright's "Lady Errant" (ii. 2),—
"We'll keep you as they do hawks,
Watching until you leave your wildness."
In "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (v. 5), where Page says
"Nay, do not fly: I think we have watch’d you now"
the allusion is, says Staunton, to this method employed to tame or "reclaim" hawks.
Again, in "Othello" (iii. 3), 3 Iago exclaims—
"She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
To seel her father's eyes up close as oak;"
in allusion to the practice of seeling a hawk, or sewing up its eyelids, by running a fine thread through them, in order to make her tractable and endure the hood of which we have already spoken. Henry IV. ("2 Henry IV." iii. 1), in his soliloquy on sleep, says—
"Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge."
In Spenser's "Fairie Queen," (I. vii. 23), we read:—
"Mine eyes no more on vanity shall feed,
But sealed up with death, shall have their deadly meed."
It was a common notion, that if a dove was let loose with its eyes so closed, it would fly straight upwards, continuing to mount, till it fell down through mere exhaustion.
In "Cymbeline," (iii. 4), Imogen, referring to Posthumus, says:—
"I grieve myself
To think, when thou shall be disedged by her
That now thou tirest on,"
this passage containing two metaphorical expressions from falconry. A bird was said to be disedged when the keenness of its appetite was taken away by tiring, or feeding upon some tough or hard substance given to it for that purpose. In "3 Henry VI." (i. 1), the king says:—
"That hateful duke,
Whose haughty spirit, winged with desire,
Will cost my crown, and like an empty eagle
Tire on the flesh of me and of my son."
In "Timon of Athens," (iii. 6), one of the lords says:—
"Upon that were my thoughts tiring, when we encountered."
In "Venus and Adonis," too, we find a further allusion:—
"Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh, and bone," &c.
Among other allusions to the hawk, may be mentioned one in "Measure for Measure," (iii. i):—
"This outward-sainted deputy,
Whose settled visage and deliberate word
Nips youth i’ th’ head and follies doth emmew,
As falcon doth the fowl."
—the word "emmew" signifying the place where hawks were shut up during the time they moulted. In "Romeo and Juliet," (iii. 4), Lady Capulet says of Juliet:—"To-night she is mew’d up to her heaviness;" and in "Taming of Shrew," (i. 1), Gremio speaking of Bianca to Signor Baptista, says:—"Why will you mew her?"
When the wing or tail feathers of a hawk were dropped, forced out, or broken, by any accident, it was usual to supply or repair as many as were deficient or damaged, an operation called "to imp 1 a hawk." Thus in Richard II. (ii. 1), Northumberland says:—
"If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing."
So Massinger in his "Renegado" (v. 8), makes Asambeg say—
"Strive to imp
New feathers to the broken wings of time."
Hawking was sometimes called birding. In the "Merry Wives of Windsor," (iii. 3), Master Page says:—"I do invite you to-morrow morning to my house to breakfast; after, we'll a-birding together, I have a fine hawk for the bush." In the same play (iii. 5), Dame Quickly, speaking of Mistress Ford, says:—"Her husband goes this morning a-birding;" and Mistress Ford says (iv. 2):—"He's a-birding, sweet St John." The word hawk, says Mr Harting, is invariably used by Shakspeare in its generic sense; and in only two instances does he allude to a particular species. These are the kestrel and sparrowhawk. In "Twelfth Night," (ii. 5), Sir Toby Belch, speaking of Malvolio, as he finds the letter which Maria has purposely dropped in his path, says
"And with what wing the staniel checks at it."
—staniel being a corruption of stangdall, a name for the kestrel hawk. "Gouts" is the technical term for the spots on some parts of the plumage of a hawk, and perhaps Shakspeare uses the word in allusion to a phrase in heraldry. Macbeth (ii. 1), speaking of the dagger, says:—"I see thee still, and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood."
Heron.—This bird was frequently flown at by falconers. Shakespeare, in "Hamlet" (ii. 2), makes Hamlet say, "I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw;" handsaw being a corruption of "heronshaw," or "hernsew," which is still used, in the provincial dialects, for a heron. In Suffolk and Norfolk it is pronounced "harnsa," from which to "handsaw," is but a single step. Shakespeare here alludes to a proverbial saying, "He knows not a hawk from a handsaw." Mr J. C. Heath explains the passage thus: "The expression obviously refers to the sport of hawking. Most birds, especially one of heavy flight like the heron, when roused by the falconer or his dog, would fly down or with the wind, in order to escape. When the wind is from the north, the heron flies towards the south, and the spectator may be dazzled by the sun, and be unable to distinguish the hawk from the heron. On the other hand, when the wind is southerly, the heron flies towards the north, and it and the pursuing hawk are clearly seen by the sportsman, who then has his back to the sun, and without difficulty knows the hawk from the hernsew."
Jay.—From its gay and gaudy plumage, this bird has been used for a loose woman, as "Merry Wives of Windsor" (iii. 3):—
"We'll teach him to know turtles from jays,"
i.e., to distinguish honest women from loose ones. Again, in "Cymbeline" (iii. 4), Imogen says—
"Some jay of Italy
Whose mother was her painting, hath betray’d him."
Kestrel.—A hawk 5 of a base unserviceable breed, and therefore used by Spenser in his "Faerie Queen" (II. iii. 4), to signify base
"Ne thought of honour ever did assay
His baser breast, but in his kestrell kynd
A pleasant veine of glory he did fynd."
By some it is derived from "coystril," a knave or peasant, from being the hawk formerly used by persons of inferior rank. Thus, in "Twelfth Night" (i. 3), we find "coystrill," and in "Pericles" (iv. 6), "coystrel." The name kestrel, says Singer, for an inferior kind of hawk, was evidently a corruption of the French quercelle or quercerelle, and originally had no connection with coystril, though in later times they may have been confounded. Holinshed 3 classes coisterels with lacqueys and women, the unwarlike attendants on an army. The term was also given as a nick-name to the emissaries employed by the kings of England in their French wars. Dyce also considers kestrel distinct from coistrel.
Kingfisher.—It was a common belief in days gone by, that during the days the halcyon or kingfisher was engaged in hatching her eggs, the sea remained so calm that the sailor might venture upon it without incurring risk of storm or tempest; hence this period was called by Pliny and Aristotle "the halcyon days," to which allusion is made in "1 Henry VI." (i. 2)—
"Expect St Martin's summer, halcyon days."
Dryden also refers to this notion—
"Amidst our arms as quiet you shall be,
As halcyons brooding on a winter's sea."
Another superstition connected with this bird occurs in "King Lear" (ii. 1), where the Earl of Kent says—
"Turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters."
the prevalent idea being, that a dead kingfisher, suspended, from a cord, would always turn its beak in that direction from whence the wind blew. Marlow, in his "Jew of Malta," (i. 1), says—
"But now how stands the wind?
Into what corner peers my halcyon's bill?"
Occasionally one may still see this bird hung up in cottages, a remnant, no doubt, of this old superstition.
Kite.—This bird was considered by the ancients to be unlucky. In "Julius Cæsar" (v. 1), Cassius says—
"Ravens, crows, and kites,
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us."
In "Cymbeline," too (i. 2), Imogen says—
"I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock,"
puttock, here, being a synonym sometimes applied to the kite. Formerly the kite became a term of reproach from its ignoble habits. Thus in "Antony and Cleopatra" (iii. 13), Antony exclaims, "You kite," and King Lear (i. 4), says to Goneril, "detested kite, thou liest." Its intractable disposition is alluded to in "Taming of the Shrew" by Petruchio (iv. 1). A curious peculiarity of this bird is noticed in "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3), where Autolycus says:—"My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen"—meaning that his practice was to steal sheets; leaving the smaller linen to be carried away by the kites, who will occasionally carry it off to line their nests. Mr Dyce quotes the following remarks of Mr Peck on this passage—"Autolycus here gives us to understand that he is a thief of the first class. This he explains by an allusion to an odd vulgar notion. The common people many of them, think that, if anyone can find a kite's nest, when she hath young, before they are fledged, and sew up their back doors, so as they cannot mute, the mother kite in compassion to their distress, will steal lesser linen, as caps, cravats, ruffles, or any other such small matters as she can best fly with, from off the hedges where they are hanged to dry after washing, and carry them to her nest, and there leave them, if possible to move the pity of the first corner, to cut the thread, and ease them of their misery."
Lapwing.—Several interesting allusions are made by Shakespeare to this eccentric bird. It was a common notion that the young lapwings ran out of the shell with part of it sticking on their heads, in such haste were they to be hatched. Horatio ("Hamlet," v. 2) says of Osric—
"This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head."
It was, therefore, regarded as the symbol of a forward fellow. Webster in the "White Devil" (1859, p. 13)—
He flies with the shell on’s head."
The lapwing, like the partridge, is also said to draw pursuers from her nest by fluttering along the ground in an opposite direction or by crying in other places. Thus in the "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 2), Shakespeare says—
"Far from her nest the lapwing cries away."
Again in "Measure for Measure" (i. 4), Lucio exclaims—
"Though ’tis my familiar sin,
With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest
Tongue far from heart."
Once more in "Much Ado about Nothing" (iii. 1) we read—
"For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs,
Close by the ground, to hear our conference."
Several, too, of our older poets refer to this peculiarity. In Ben Jonson's "Underwoods" (lviii.) we are told—
"Where he that knows will like a lapwing fly,
Farre from the nest, and so himself belie."
Through thus alluring intruders from its nest, the lapwing became a symbol of insincerity; and hence originated the proverb, "The lapwing cries tongue from heart;" or, "The lapwing cries most, farthest from her nest."
Lark.—Shakespeare has bequeathed to us many exquisite passages referring to the lark, full of the most sublime pathos and lofty conceptions. Most readers are doubtless acquainted with that superb song in "Cymbeline" (ii. 3), where this sweet songster is represented as singing "at heaven's gate;" and again, as the "bird of dawn," it is described in "Venus and Adonis," thus—
"Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest,
From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,
And wakes the morning, from whose silver breast
The sun ariseth in his majesty."
In "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2 song), we have a graphic touch of pastoral life—
"When shepherds pipe on oaten straws
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks."
The words of Portia, too, in "Merchant of Venice" (v. 1), to sing "as sweetly as the lark," have long ago passed into a proverb.
It was formerly a current saying that the lark and toad changed eyes, to which Juliet refers in "Romeo and Juliet" (iii. 5)—
"Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes."
Warburton says this popular fancy originated in the toad having very fine eyes, and the lark very ugly ones. This tradition was formerly expressed in a rustic rhyme—
"To heav’n I’d fly,
But that the toad beguil’d me of mine eye."
In "Henry VIII." (iii. 2), the Earl of Surrey, in denouncing Wolsey, alludes to a curious method of capturing larks, which was effected by small mirrors and red cloth. These scaring the birds made them crouch, while the fowler drew his nets over them—
"Let his grace go forward,
And dare us with his cap like larks."
In this case the cap was the scarlet hat of the cardinal, which it was intended to use as a piece of red cloth. The same idea occurs in Skelton's "Why Come Ye not to Court?" a satire on Wolsey—
"The red hat with his lure
Bringeth all things under cure."
The words "tirra-lyra" ("Winter's Tale," iv. 3), are a fanciful combination of sounds, meant to imitate the lark's note, borrowed, says Nares, from the French tire-lire. Browne, "British Pastorals" (bk. i. song 4), makes it teery-leery. In one of the Coventry pageants there is the following old song sung by the shepherds at the birth of Christ, which contains the expression—
"As I out rode this endenes night,
Of three joli shepherds I sawe a syght,
And all aboute there fold a stare shone bright,
They sang terli terlow,
So mereli the sheppards their pipes can blow."
In Scotland and the north of England, the peasantry say that if one is desirous of knowing what the lark says, he must lie down on his back in the field and listen, and he will then hear it say:—
"Up in the lift go we,
Tehee, tehee, tehee, tehee!
There's not a shoemaker on the earth
Can make a shoe to me, to me!
Why so, why so, why so?
Because my heel is as long as my toe."
Magpie.—It was formerly known as magot-pie, probably from the French magot, a monkey, because the bird chatters and plays droll tricks like a monkey. It has generally been regarded as a mysterious bird, and regarded with superstitious awe, and is thus alluded to in "Macbeth," (iii. 4):—
"Augurs and understood relations, have
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood."
And again, in 3 "Henry VI.," (v. 6), it is said:—
"Chattering pies in dismal discords sung."
There are numerous rhymes relating to the magpie, of which we subjoin as a specimen one prevalent in the north of England:—
"One is sorrow, two mirth,
Three a wedding, four a birth.
Five heaven, six hell,
Seven the de’il's ain sell."
In Devonshire, in order to avert the ill-luck from seeing a magpie, the peasant spits over his right shoulder three times, and in Yorkshire various charms are in use. One is to raise the hat as a salutation, and then to sign the cross on the breast; and another consists in making the same sign by crossing the thumbs. It is a common notion in Scotland that magpies flying near the windows of a house portend a speedy death to one of its inmates. The superstitions associated with the magpie are not confined to this country, for in Sweden 1 it is considered the witch's bird, belonging to the evil one and the other powers of night. In Denmark, when a magpie perches on a house, it is regarded as a sign that strangers are coming.
Martin.—The martin, or martlet, which is called in "Macbeth," (i. 6), the "guest of summer," as being a migratory bird, has been from the earliest times treated with superstitious respect,—it being considered unlucky to molest or in any way injure its nest. Thus, in the "Merchant of Venice," (ii. 9), the Prince of Arragon says:—
Builds in the weather on the outward wall,
Even in the force and road of casualty."
Forster says that the circumstance of this bird's nest being built so close to the habitations of man indicates that it has long enjoyed freedom from molestation. There is a popular rhyme still current in the north of England:—
"The martin and the swallow
Are God Almighty's bow and arrow."
The Nightingale.—The popular error that the nightingale sings with its breast impaled upon a thorn is noticed by Shakespeare, who makes Lucreece say:—
"And whiles against a thorn thou bear’st thy part,
To keep thy sharp woes waking."
In the "Passionate Pilgrim," (xxi.), there is an allusion:—
"Everything did banish moan,
Save the nightingale alone.
She, poor bird, as all forlorn,
Lean’d her breast up-till a thorn,
And there sung the dolefull’st ditty,
That to hear it was great pity."
Beaumont and Fletcher, in "The Faithful Shepherdess" (v. 3), speak of—
"The nightingale among the thick-leaved spring,
That sits alone in sorrow, and doth sing
Whole nights away in mourning."
Sir Thomas Browne asks "Whether the nightingale's sitting with her breast against a thorn, be any more than that she placeth some prickles on the outside of her nest, or roosteth in thorny prickly places, where serpents may least approach her." In the "Zoologist" for 1862 the Rev. A. C. Smith mentions "the discovery, on two occasions, of a strong thorn projecting upwards in the centre of the nightingale's nest." Another notion is that the nightingale never sings by day; and thus Portia in "Merchant of Venice," (v. 1), says:—
The nightingale, if she could sing by day,
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren."
Such, however, is not the case, for this bird often sings as sweetly in the day as at night-time. There is an old superstition 3 that the nightingale sings all night, to keep itself awake, lest the glow-worm should devour her. The classical fable of the unhappy Philomela turned into a nightingale, when her siste