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The Collation

Visualizing Shakespeare’s Birds

Greetings! I was the Folger Shakespeare Library’s artist-in-residence in November of 2021. I dedicated my Folger Institute Fellowship to a painting project entitled Birds of the Bard. This growing collection of paintings will catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. My paintings aim to present natural science facts and literary analysis about each species.

The master list of Shakespeare’s birds was gathered before me by James Edmund Harting in his book, The Birds of Shakespeare (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871). I cross-reference each species with Alexander Schmidt’s Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), pointing me to every word’s exact location in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Finally, I read the scene to confirm and examine the species’ presence.

Finding the birds in the text is one puzzle and understanding the significance of the bird is another. I am investigating 17th-century folklore and naturalist beliefs that may have shaped how the bird was perceived by the playwright, his characters, and his audiences. I am also collecting early modern scientific illustrations, and reading the work of scholars who analyzed Shakespeare’s relationship to the natural world.

My research heavily relies on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s immense rare book collection, especially the main Digital Image Collection and the British Book Illustrations Collection. The images found in these collections have been invaluable to me in two ways: inspiring my designs and helping me locate species in the text.

The Golden Eagle

Occurrences in text: 40 (37 “eagle,” 1 “Jove’s bird,” 2 “Roman eagle”)

Plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, 1 Henry IV, Henry V, 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Julius Caesar, King John, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Macbeth, Pericles, Richard II, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, Twelth Night

Poems: The Phoenix and the Turtle, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos by Missy Dunaway
Acrylic ink on paper, 30×22 inches

I want my project to be enjoyed by general audiences, but I also aspire to satisfying the high standards of two discerning viewers: the Shakespeare enthusiast and birder. Each month, I send my latest paintings to a Shakespearean scholar to counsel my interpretations of Shakespeare’s writing, and an avian ecologist to correct my bird renderings.

In my first meeting with Cody Deane, an avian ecologist in Fairbanks, Alaska, he took issue with my illustration of a golden eagle. He remarked that I posed my bird with its legs extended, which one would never see unless catching a rare glimpse of takeoff.

If I want a birder to recognize each species, he suggested that the pose should be one likely observed in the wild: perched upright or mid-flight as viewed from below. I checked my Sibley’s, Audubon, Collins, and Princeton guides, which confirmed his critique. Field guide illustrations are designed to benefit a reader observing birds in motion from a distance.

By contrast, my golden eagle is extending its legs as it reaches from a standing position to flight. On a white page, it appears as though my eagle is awkwardly flying with its legs dangling, which is unnaturalistic. I could see the value in Cody’s suggestion and considered re-painting it. However, I was afraid his approach would restrict poses and ultimately limit the visual variety of the artwork.

I wanted a second opinion so I looked through the British Book Illustrations Collection for ideas that would help me choose a course of action. I found this striking image by Francis Willughby:

A golden eagle illustrated by Francis Willughby from “Francisci Willughbeii de Middleton in agro Warwicensi, Armigeri, e Regia Societate, Ornothologiae libri tres” (1676)

What a relief! Many illustrations of eagles, including stylized symbols, depict eagles with feathered legs on display. I suspect this is because feathers that wrap around the raptor’s leg and extend to its feet are a distinguishing feature of eagles. The creature could be mistaken for a smaller hawk or falcon without those full-length feathered pants. This illustration validated my choice and gave me the confidence to continue posing my birds in unconventional ways.

The Turtle Dove

Occurrences in text: 33 (14 “turtle” and 19 “dove”)

Plays: Coriolanus, Hamlet, Henry VI Part I, Henry VIII, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, The Winter’s Tale

Poems: The Passionate Pilgrim, The Phoenix and the Turtle, The Rape of Lucrece, Sonnet 113, Venus and Adonis

European Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur by Missy Dunaway
Acrylic ink on paper, 30×22 inches

The dove is a perfect example of the most common problem I encounter in my project: which exact species is Shakespeare referring to? “Dove” may refer to rock, barbary, or turtle dove. Pigeons also belong to the dove’s Columbidae family, further complicating the count.

The color of the dove is not always given, but narrative and context help decipher the species: the rock dove was a utilitarian bird used as a carrier pigeon to deliver messages or as hunting bait, particularly in falconry. The white barbary dove symbolizes peace and is sometimes exchanged between characters as an offer of treaty. Any link made between love and doves counts towards the turtle dove.1

I checked the Folger’s Digital Image Collection for “dove” and I found an illustration that depicts two doves pulling the Greek goddess Venus in an airborne carriage:

Two turtle doves guide Venus’ carriage in “Amorum emblemata, figuris æneis incisa studio Othonis VænI Batauo-Lugdunensis” by Otto Van Veen (1608)

Before seeing this image, I did not know that doves were associated with Venus and her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite. Roman mythology is not among my passions, and I find the details tedious and forgettable—especially when learned through text. However, after seeing this powerful picture by Otto Van Veen, the relationship between doves and Venus is immediately recalled in my mind. I scanned Shakespeare’s citations to Venus for accompanying references to doves—and I found two more that I might have overlooked, including a reference in the very last stanza of the narrative poem, lines 1189-1194, Venus and Adonis:

Thus, weary of the world, away she 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.

Shakespeare describes the doves as “silvery,” so they could arguably be barbary doves, or a white rock dove. Color is changeable, and the turtle dove may also appear silvery in certain light. Again, I rely on cultural context and clues to make my decision. Venus is the goddess of love, desire, and beauty and the turtle dove is also a symbol of love. I believe this mutual association makes the turtle dove the most appropriate bird to guide Venus’s carriage.

I am sharing my project on my website, Birds of Shakespeare, which will launch this April to celebrate Shakespeare’s birth and Earth Month. Every other week, I will release a new bird painting with a written summary that examines how Shakespeare portrays the species. The first blog post there will take a closer look at the association between love and the turtle dove. Visit the site to sign up for the newsletter, and two new birds will fly to your inbox each month.

  1. See Harting, The Birds of Shakespeare, p.189-191


I loved this topic. Thank you.

Helen Urquhart — June 9, 2022