Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Birds of Shakespeare: The carrion crow

With the carrion crow, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) by Missy Dunaway, 30x22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

Painting key

Fauna: 3 carrion crows (Corvus corone), 1 dead European hare (Lepus europaeus), 1 mute swan (Cygnus olor)

Objects: 5 carrion crow eggs, 5 feathers, 1 nest

Plants mentioned by Shakespeare: Crow flowers: long purple (Orchis mascula), ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), white water-crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), wild garlic (Allium ursinum)

Shakespeare’s crow

For Halloween, we meet the crow, one of Shakespeare’s ominous ambassadors of death. So many of the birds I study appear once in Shakespeare’s world, such as the heron, loon, snipe, and starling. It is exciting to research a bird found in so many plays. With an estimated 42 appearances, there are abundant quotes to scour and enjoy! Although Shakespeare favors the crow as a symbol of doom, it carries various meanings and appears in several forms.

The crow’s name comes from the Old English crawe, as does the verb “to crow.”1 It is an onomatopoeia for its loud, “cawing” call. Crows are intelligent, opportunistic feeders that hunt in flocks. If the option is available, they let other predators do the hard work of killing prey and swoop in to scavenge on leftovers. This behavior inspires most of Shakespeare’s references to the crow, which usually appears after battle to feast on the dead and vulnerable.2 In Julius Caesar, Cassius confides in Messala a vision of threatening carrion crows, ravens, and kites that prophesy he will perish in the upcoming battle to overthrow the government:

Julius Caesar (Act V, Scene 1, Line 78)

CASSIUS: Messala,
This is my birth-day; as this very day
Was Cassius born. Give me thy hand, Messala:
Be thou my witness that against my will,
As Pompey was, am I compell’d to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.
You know that I held Epicurus strong
And his opinion: now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch’d,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;
Who to Philippi here consorted us:
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.

a group of crows

Carrion crows disturbed early modern audiences by indicating death was nearby. This illustration by L. Brinckmair depicts flocks of crows in Germany that were believed to relate to a series of “miserable events which ensued betweene the yeare 1618 and 1638” (1638). Folger Shakespeare Library

The distinction of “carrion” crows within the crow family appeared in 1589 and greatly influenced how Shakespeare used the crow as a symbol.3 The folklore surrounding the crow before the distinction is more ambivalent. Many of Aesop’s fables feature a crow in a positive light. “The Crow and the Pitcher” and “The Crow and the Sheep” praise the bird’s intelligence. In the former story, a thirsty crow cleverly fills a half-empty pitcher with stones to raise the water level within its reach. Other folktales portray the crow as a deliverer of good and bad luck. In Wales, sighting one crow is unlucky, but sighting two is lucky. The Saxons believed that a crow on a viewer’s left indicated disaster.4

The crow might have a bad reputation but has some redeeming qualities. This illustration by John Ogilby of Aesop’s fable, “The Crow and the Pitcher,” depicts a clever crow filling a water jug with pebbles to raise the water level for a drink (1668). Folger Shakespeare Library

The concept of “crow flowers” reflects the crow’s ambivalence. Crow flowers are a term for weedy wildflowers that appear in spring, such as long purple, ragged robin, white water-crowfoot, and wild garlic.5 Although pretty, they can grow into a tangled mess, choke neighboring plants, and may be toxic if consumed.

One of the most memorable references to crow flowers is Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. When alive, the fragile Ophelia refers to delicate blooms like pansies and violets, but is discovered poignantly encircled by crow flowers in death.

Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 7, Line 187)

QUEEN: One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.

LAERTES: Drowned? O, where?

QUEEN: There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his ⟨hoar⟩ leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call

John Gerard includes “Crow Garlicke” as a crow flower in his botanical guide, The herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633). Folger Shakespeare Library

Among the crow’s admirable qualities is its uniquely strong beak, which can pry open hard surfaces. The crowbar gets its name by mimicking its sturdy shape and function.6 This tool is handy today, but it is centuries old and appears in Shakespeare’s verse, such as in this amusing exchange in The Comedy of Errors between Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio:

The Comedy of Errors (Act III, Scene 1, Line 127)

ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS: Well, I’ll break in. Go, borrow me a crow.

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: A crow without feather? Master, mean you so?
For a fish without a fin, there’s a fowl without a
If a crow help us in, sirrah, we’ll pluck a crow

ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS: Go, get thee gone. Fetch me an iron crow.

I have included a crowbar in my painting alongside a crude arrow that alludes to “crowkeepers,” or boys who practiced archery by shooting homemade arrows to scare crows away from crops.7 To call someone a crowkeeper would be an insult to their archery skills. King Lear makes this observation about an imagined foe as he spirals into insanity:

King Lear (Act IV, Scene 6, Line 105)

LEAR: Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your
press-money. That fellow handles his bow like a

Crowkeepers served a similar purpose to the familiar scarecrow, another crow-inspired tool in Shakespeare’s world. In Henry IV, Part 1, Sir Falstaff is tasked with assembling a team of soldiers. Instead of conscripting competent men, Falstaff selfishly accepts bribes to enlist the least desirable people who are as sorry a sight as lifeless, scraggly scarecrows in shabby clothing:

Henry IV, Part 1 (Act IV, Scene 2, Line 36)

FALSTAFF: A mad fellow met me
on the way and told me I had unloaded all the
gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. No eye hath
seen such scarecrows. 
I’ll not march through Coventry
with them, that’s flat. Nay, and the villains
march wide betwixt the legs as if they had gyves on,
for indeed I had the most of them out of prison.
There’s not a shirt and a half in all my company,
and the half shirt is two napkins tacked together
and thrown over the shoulders like a herald’s coat
without sleeves; and the shirt, to say the truth,
stolen from my host at Saint Albans or the red-nose
innkeeper of Daventry. But that’s all one; they’ll find
linen enough on every hedge.

In my painting, I placed a crow before a white swan. I rarely include another bird in a painting unless it is essential to how the species appears in Shakespeare’s text. For example, Shakespeare often utilizes the black silhouette of a crow to contrast white creatures. In Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio assures Romeo he will see so many beauties at the Capulet’s party that he will realize the object of his crush, Rosaline, is a homely crow instead of an elegant swan.

Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene 2, Line 89)

BENVOLIO: At this same ancient feast of Capulet’s
Sups the fair Rosaline whom thou so loves,
With all the admirèd beauties of Verona.
Go thither, and with unattainted eye
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.

I am a fan of crows, so I was happy to find that their reputation is large enough to hold contradictions and contains both good and bad impressions. However, the crow’s prevailing symbolism in Shakespeare’s world is negative. In my painting, a blood-splattered border and a dead hare dominate the composition, alluding to the crow’s sinister nature as a carrion scavenger. The border incorporates as many periphery meanings as possible: tools inspired by (or used to combat) the crow, the white swan as a visual foil, and a selection of beautiful but untamable crow flowers.

  1. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 201.
  2. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 99-114.
  3. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 99-114.
  4. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 200.
  5. Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herbal. Studio Editions Ltd. (Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd., 1994), Pg. 283-284.
  6. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 201.
  7. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 99-114.