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Shakespeare & Beyond

Birds of Shakespeare: The grey heron

With the heron, 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

Two herons surrounded by a border of eggs, fish, frogs, and the phases of the moon

Painting key

Fauna: 2 grey herons, 1 peregrine falcon, prey: 2 small carp, 1 rock gunnel, 2 common frogs

Flora: Lunaria leaves, lunaria seed pods, nesting material: sticks, dead reeds

Objects: 5 grey heron feathers, heronry comprised of three nests, phases of the moon, 1 compass rose from The Mariner’s Mirrour (1588)

Literary guide to the heron in Shakespeare

The calendar is hurtling from spring to summer, and from where I stand, the population of backyard birds is multiplying with comparable speed. I’ve enjoyed new species weekly, from migration arrivals to nest-building and fledglings joining the flock. Today’s post is dedicated to the largest bird many will see in their backyards this summer: the heron.

The tall, graceful Ardea heron walked the earth 7 million years ago and appeared in eighth-century written records.1 The original text of Chaucer’s Prologe of the Frankeleyns Tale includes the word “heron” as we spell it today. Shakespeare uses the term “handsaw,” and “hernshaw” was also used.

The grey heron is a skilled shoreline hunter who strikes its neck into the water with lightning speed, then swallows large fish and amphibians whole. Despite their large size and carnivorous diet, herons are preyed upon by peregrine falcons and were a popular target in falconry. The heron earned a reputation for cowardice because it is a passive bird that will not fight back and attempts to escape by flying as high as possible. Hawks attack from above, so the two birds fight for the upper hand in the air, rising above each other in an impressive spectacle.2

how to flee the hearon

Falcons attack two herons midair (top of page) in this illustration from “The booke of faulconrie or hauking” by George Turberville (1575). Folger Shakespeare Library

Shakespeare never misses an opportunity to describe falconry, including his sole reference to the heron:

Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 402)

HAMLET: I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

In this line, Hamlet reveals that his madness is a controlled ruse: he acts mad in certain conditions, but he is sane enough to know the difference between two birds that are very different in appearance. It also references his power struggle with his uncle, Claudius. Despite acting naïve, Hamlet is aware of who is the predator and who is the prey. Hamlet could have made the same point with countless other prey birds. In 3 Henry VI, Lord Clifford uses doves to illustrate cowardice:

3 Henry VI (Act I, Scene 4, Line 40)

CLIFFORD: 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.

Lord Clifford describes that a dove fights back when it is a lost cause. It is a futile effort performed to save face—but it is still an effort. Given its large size, the heron’s total conflict avoidance is even more shameful. Hamlet chooses the heron because it represents a complete lack of courage and underlines his low opinion of his uncle.

Adding one more layer of complexity, Hamlet’s reference to a southern wind alludes to the heron’s migration patterns. The English ornithologist James Edmund Harting explains:

The heron, hern, or hernshaw signified the southerly wind, because it takes its flight from Ethiopia into Upper Egypt, following the course of the Nile as it retires within its banks, and living on the small worms hatched in the mud of the river.3

The association between herons and cowardice lost its significance when falconry fell out of popularity. However, Shakespeare’s audience would have felt the sting of Hamlet’s insult. For instance, The Vows of the Heron was a famous satirical Flemish poem from 1346 where Edward III is presented with three roasted herons at a banquet, implying his cowardice for not invading France. According to legend, this insult goaded the English king into invading France, thus beginning the Hundred Years’ War.4

My painting includes another piece of folklore from Shakespeare’s time that The Bard does not mention. The heron was believed to gain weight by the waxing moon, oscillating from a plump form under a full moon to a slim frame under a crescent.5 My painting includes sprigs of lunaria, also called money plant, moonwort, and honesty. This plant shares the heron’s association with the moon. Lunaria is Latin for “moon-shaped,” describing the plant’s silver, spherical seed pods. It was believed its leaves would number the days in a lunar phase.

drawings of four birds

An illustration of a grey heron (top left) from 1676 by Francis Willoughby. Folger Shakespeare Library.

  1. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 37.
  2. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871)
  3. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871)
  4. Grigsby, John and Lacy, Norris. The Vows of the Heron (Les Voeux du Heron): A Middle French Vowing Poem (Library of Medieval Literature), (Garland, 1991).
  5. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 39.