A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is a poem that may be characterized as both an allegory and an elegy. An allegory is a literary work with a hidden meaning (and sometimes several hidden meanings). An elegy is a somber poem lamenting a person's death or memorializing a dead person.
“The Phoenix and the Turtle” appeared in a 1601 book that also included works by Shakespeare contemporaries Ben Jonson (1572-1637), George Chapman (1559-1634), and John Marston (1576-1634).
In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a bird that lived five hundred years, then died in a fire after the sun ignited an Arabian tree on which the phoenix was perched. The tree was located near Heliopolis, Egypt. From the ashes, the phoenix rose to new life. The turtledove is a small pigeon sometimes erroneously referred to as a mourning dove because of its melancholy cooing. (The mourning dove is native to America, not Europe.)
The turtle is a turtledove, an affectionate wild dove known for its plaintive cooing.
The hidden, or symbolic,
meaning of “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is
open to interpretation. In other words, what
or whom the birds symbolize is a matter for
the reader to decide. Some readers believe the
birds represent Queen Elizabeth I and the
Second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (1566 or
1567-1601). Devereux had distinguished himself
in a military campaign in The Netherlands
against the Spanish in 1586 and went on to
become a favorite of the queen. But he
provoked her ire when he took part in a
Portugal campaign without her consent and
then, in 1590, married the widow of writer Sir
Philip Sidney (1554-1586).
Interpreted against this
background, the poem could mean that the love
between Elizabeth and Essex simply burned
itself out, like the phoenix and the dove in
the poem. However, distinguished critic G.B.
Harrison, editor of Shakespeare: The
Complete Works maintains that the exact
meaning of the poem (if one was intended by
Shakespeare) may never be revealed because its
symbolism was apparently known only to a
select inner circle in Shakespeare’s time.
“Until these persons and events are
discovered,” Harrison says, “The Phoenix and
the Turtle will remain an enigma” (Shakespeare:
The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt,
1952. Page 1590).
In Shakespeare's poem, the
birds become one in their love and die
together in a fire. The poem begins when other
birds are summoned for a funeral pageant.
Banned from attending are the fiendish screech
owl (Stanza 2) and “fowls of tyrant wing”
(Stanza 3). But the eagle, a “feathered king”
(Stanza 3) is welcome, and a swan is to act as
“the priest in surplice white” (Stanza 4). The
crow, too, may attend (Stanza 5), his caws and
sable feathers appropriate to the occasion.
The poem then describes the loving
relationship between the phoenix and the
turtledove. Stanza 9 is particularly moving;
its last line–either was the other’s mine–is
superb with its double-meaning. On the one
hand, it suggests a fusing of identities: I
am you, and you are I; or, put another
way, you are mine, and I am yours. On
the other hand, it suggests that either bird
is a mine–as in gold mine or diamond
mind–for the other bird.
the bird of loudest lay,1
thou, treble-dated crow,10
the anthem doth commence:
they lov'd, as love in twain
remote, yet not asunder;
between them love did shine,
Property11 was thus appall'd,
in itself confounded,
it cried how true a twain
it made this threne12
truth, and rarity.
is now the phoenix' nest;
may seem, but cannot be:
this urn let those repair
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.Alliteration
Let the bird of loudest lay (line 1)
Let the bird of loudest lay,
Distance, and no space was seen (line 30)
The main theme of the poem is the intense love that binds two creatures to each other, turning them into a single being. A secondary theme is the sadness that pervades the poem.
In each of the four-line stanzas (quatrains), the last line rhymes with the fourth; the second line rhymes with the third. The first stanza demonstrates the pattern.
Let the bird of loudest lay,Note, however, that the second stanza has close rhymes only, unless one alters the pronunciation of harbinger, making it har bin jeer, and the pronunciation of fiend, making it fe end.
In the threnos, the first, second, and third lines of each stanza rhyme. However, note that in the first stanza of the threnos, lie must be pronounced as lee or the y in rarity and simplicity must be pronounced as an i.
There are seven syllables in each line. The stress falls on the first, third, fifth, and seventh syllables, as the second stanza indicates:
BUT thou, SHRIking HARbinGER,The metric pattern thus is trochaic tetrameter, meaning each foot consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and that each line has four feet. However, the last foot of each line is catalectic—that is, it consists of only one syllable. The following presentation of the second stanza illustrates its metric format:
.......1..................2................3............4Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write a short poem
that imitates the rhyme scheme of "The Phoenix
and the Turtle." The topic is open.
Leaving no posterity:—