Shakespeare's Swooping Imagery
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Birds of Prey Helped Shakespeare Make Apt Comparisons
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

In his plays and poems, Shakespeare frequently used figures of speech centering on birds of prey. Apparently he either observed or participated in falconry—or, as some called it, hawking—in and around his hometown of Stratford in rural south-central England. In this regard, J. E. Hartung wrote: "It was the opinion of Dr. Johnson that Shakespeare commonly derived his knowledge of Nature from his own observation, and no one can fail to be delighted with the variety and richness of the images which he has derived from Natural History" ("The Birds of Shakespeare," The Zoologist, October 1866).

References to several varieties of raptors—including falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, and kites—appear in metaphors, similes, and other imagery in Shakespeare's works. Such references enrich and vivify his writing, as in the following passage from Macbeth. It presents the reaction of the stunned Macduff to news that Macbeth's henchmen have murdered Macduff's wife and children.

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop? (4.3.256)

Hell-kite is, of course, an allusion to Macbeth (the character). At one fell swoop is a phrase that has become part of the English language. Fell here means deadly, savage, cruel. A
Among the birds of prey, including the kite, that Shakespeare referred to in his works are the following:

buzzard: Medium-size bird that is usually brown with patches of white. It preys on land animals such as rabbits, snakes, and pheasants but will also feed on carrion (dead animals, rotting flesh).
eagle: Large, powerful bird with long, broad wings and a hooked beak and keen eyesight.
eyas: Falcon that is to be trained to hunt.
falcon: Swift bird with tapering wings and a hooked beak. One type of falcon, the peregrine can dive at up to 200 miles an hour.
hawk: Intelligent bird of varying sizes with keen vision. Unlike the falcon, which kills with its beak, the hawk kills its prey with its claws.
kite: Small bird of the hawk family with a forked tail and pointed wings that enable it to soar gracefully.
owl: Bird with large eyes and a small beak that usually hunts at night. Its eyes do not move in their sockets. To look left or right, an owl must turn its head.
osprey: Large bird that hunts mainly in the daytime, usually for fish. It is also called a sea hawk.
pelican: Large water bird with a long beak and webbed feet. It can soar at heights of more than 10,000 feet.
tercel or tiercel: Male hawk or falcon trained to hunt; any male hawk or falcon. A tercel is about one-third smaller than a female hawk or falcon.
Vulture: Large bird that feeds mainly on dead animals. The vulture is usually classified as a scavenger bird. However, because it may attack a sick or injured animal, it can also be regarded as a bird of prey. The typical vulture has no feathers on its head or neck.

Raptor imagery helped Shakespeare to (1) develop characters, (2) establish tone and atmosphere, (3) foreshadow an event or an outcome, (4) explain the moral climate of a work, (5) make clear the meaning of a passage, and (6) vivify his writing. Here are examples of Shakespeare's references to birds of prey:

More pity that the eagles should be mew'd
While kites and buzzard prey at liberty. (Richard III, 1.1.139-140)
                  The world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch." (Richard III, 1.3.74-75)

Reveng'd may she be on 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." (Henry VI Part III, 1.1.273-276) 

Yet looks he like a king: behold his eye,
As bright as is the eagle'slightens forth
Controlling majesty. (Richard II, 3, 3.74-76)

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone,
Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste,
Till either gorge be stuff'd or prey be gone;
Even so she kissed his brow, his cheek, his chin,
And where she ends she doth anew begin. (Venus and Adonis, 55-60)

Romeo's a dishclout to him: an eagle, madam
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye,
As Paris hath. (Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.235-237)

Know, the gallant monarch is in arms,
And, like an eagle o'er his aery, towers
To souse annoyance that comes near his nest. (King John, 5.2.153-155)

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. (Titus Andronicus, 4.4.85-88)

More pity that the eagles should be mew'd
While kites and buzzards prey at liberty. (Richard III, 1.1.139-140)

He came in thunder; his celestial breath
Was sulphurous to smell: the holy eagle
Stoop'd as to foot us: his ascension is
More sweet than our blest fields: his royal bird

Prunes the immortal wing and cloys his beak,

As when his god is pleased. (Cymbeline, 5.4.119-124)

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 the Roman host. (Cymbeline, 4.2.424-428)

Thou art like the harpy,
Which, to betray, dost, with thine angel's face,
Seize with thine eagle's talons. (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, 4.3.55-57)
There is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases that cry out. (Hamlet, 2.2.261)
Hawk and Falcon
So cowards fight when they can fly no further;
So doves do peck the falcon's piercing talons;
So desperate thieves, all hopeless of their lives,
Breathe out invectives 'gainst the officers. (Henry VI Part III, 1.4.43-46)

My lord protector's hawks do tower so well;
They know their master loves to be aloft,
And bears his thoughts above his falcon's pitch. (Henry VI Part II, 2.1.12-14)

As confident as is the falcon's flight
Against a bird, do I with Mowbray fight. (Richard II, 1.3.65-66)7
When I bestride him [my horse] I soar, I am a hawk. (Henry V, 3.7.9)

Dost thou love hawking? Thou hast hawks will soar
Above the morning lark. (Taming of the Shrew: Induction, 2.35-36)
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their bodies' force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest. (Sonnet 91, 1-6)

Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be. (Sonnet 91, 9-11)

Hist! Romeo, hist! O, for a falconer's voice,
To lure this tassel-gentle back again! (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.171-172)

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd,
For then she never looks upon her lure. (Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.128-130)

I bless the time
When my good falcon made her flight across
Thy father's ground. (The Winter's Tale), 4.3.18

As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and
as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling. (As You Like It, 3.3.30)

Look! as the full-fed hound or gorged hawk,
Unapt for tender smell or speedy flight,
Make slow pursuit, or altogether balk
The prey wherein by nature they delight. (The Rape of Lucrece, 694-697)

My lord protector's hawks do tower so well;
They know their master loves to be aloft,
And bears his thoughts above his falcon's pitch. (Henry VI Part II, 2.1.12-14)

                This outward-sainted deputy,
Whose settled visage and deliberate word
Nips youth i' the head and follies doth enmew
As falcon doth the fowl, is yet a devil
His filth within being cast, he would appear
A pond as deep as hell. (Measure for Measure, 3.1.97-102)

This said, he shakes aloft his Roman blade,
Which, like a falcon towering in the skies,
Coucheth the fowl below with his wings' shade,
Whose crooked beak threats if he mount he dies:
So under his insulting falchion lies
Harmless Lucretia, marking what he tells
With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcon's bells. (The Rape of Lucrece, 505-511)

But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! (Hamlet, 2.2.411-415)

The deadly-handed Clifford slew my steed,
But match to match I have encounter'd him
And made a prey for carrion kites and crows
Even of the bonny beast he loved so well. (Henry VI Part II, 5.2.12-15)

This morning are they fled away and gone;
And in their steads do ravens, 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. (Julius Caesar, 5.1.96-101)

If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites. (Macbeth, 3.4.84-86)

              Come on, poor babe:
Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! (The Winter's Tale, 2.3.218-220)

More pity that the eagles should be mew'd,
While kites and buzzards prey at liberty. (Richard III, 1.1.139-140)

Are you the butcher, Suffolk? Where's your knife?
Is Beaufort term'd a kite? Where are his talons? (Henry VI Part II, 3.2.204-205)

I think he'll be to Rome 
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it 
By sovereignty of nature. (Coriolanus, 4.7.37-39)
'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd. (Macbeth, 2.4.14-17)

To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms 
And, like the kind life-rend'ring pelican
Repast them with my blood. (Hamlet, 4.5.126-128)

Let vultures vile seize on his lungs. (Henry IV Part II, 5.3

               The vulture of sedition
Feeds in the bosom of . . . great commanders. (Henry VI Part I, 4.3.50-51)

                                 Beloved Regan,
Thy sister's naught. O Regan, she hath tied
Sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here!
[Lays his hand on his heart.] (King Lear, 2.4.124-127)

                  There cannot be
That vulture in you, to devour so many
As will to greatness dedicate themselves. (Macbeth, 4.3.85-87)

Let vultures gripe thy guts! for gourd and fullam holds,
And high and low beguiles the rich and poor:
Tester I'll have in pouch when thou shalt lack,
Base Phrygian Turk! (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.3.44-47)

I am Revenge: sent from the infernal kingdom,
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind,
By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes. (Titus Andronicus, 5.2.33-35)

Her sad behavior feeds his vulture folly. (The Rape of Lucrece, 556)

                     If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,
To pray at fortune. (Othello, 3.3.294-296)


Dr. Johnson: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), revered English critic, essayist, and lexicographer.
mew'd: Caged.
tire: Rip; tear at; tear apart.
aery: Nest. Also spelled aerie, eyrie, and eyry.
stoop: Dive to attack prey; swoop.
Stoop'd: Dived to attack prey; swooped.
enmew: Cage; trap.
falchion: Short, curving sword that broadens near the tip.
offal: Internal organs of an animal; the wasted parts of a butchered animal.
bonny: Good; excellent.
charnel-houses: Storage places for dead bodies or the remains of the dead.
maws: Stomachs.
gripe: Cause sharp pain in the bowels.
gourd and fullam: Types of loaded dice.
Tester: Sixpence coin engraved with the image of King Henry VIII.
haggard: Raptor more than a year old.
jesses: Straps around the legs of a hawk or falcon to which a leash is attached.