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Shakespeare & Beyond

Birds of Shakespeare: The greylag goose

With the greylag goose, we conclude our bird-watching series with artist Missy Dunaway 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

Greylag Goose (Anser anser) by Missy Dunaway, 30x22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

Painting key

Fauna: 2 greylag geese (Anser anser)

Objects: 5 greylag goose eggs, 20 greylag goose feathers, 1 writing quill and script

Plants mentioned by Shakespeare: Holly, lemon, orange, quince apple

Shakespeare’s goose

It’s the holiday season and my final Birds of Shakespeare blog post! I chose something festive and celebratory for the occasion: a goose. The goose would have been among Shakespeare’s options for a Christmas feast, as it is today.

According to scholars, Shakespeare’s goose is the greylag goose, the most common wild and domestic breed found in the British Isles.1 The greylag goose likely got its name because it is a year-round resident that “lagged behind” other species that departed for breeding.2 Nearly all western domesticated geese descend from the greylag goose.3

In addition to Christmas, the goose was the traditional meal for Michaelmas as far back as the reign of Edward IV.4 The tradition of breaking a wishbone from a turkey breast originated with the goose as early as 1455 when Dr. Hartlieb, physician to the Duke of Bavaria, wrote that the state of the breastbone would predict what kind of weather would follow the Michaelmas holiday.5

The goose is a flexible symbol that appears in various forms in Shakespeare’s work, alluding to things as disparate as horseback riding and syphilis. The goose appears prominently in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo and Mercutio exchange rapid-fire goose puns in a battle of wits. The jabs begin with a reference to a wild goose chase. James Edmund Harting explains that this phrase refers to a reckless horserace in which two horses started together, and the rider who took the lead compelled the other to follow him over whatever ground he chose.6 Romeo indeed leads Mercutio in a wild goose chase through a variety of goose references:

Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene 4, Line 73)

MERCUTIO: Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I
am done, for thou hast more of the wild goose in
one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole
five. Was I with you there for the goose?

ROMEO: Thou wast never with me for anything when
thou wast not there for the goose

MERCUTIO: I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.

ROMEO: Nay, good goose, bite not.

MERCUTIO: Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most
sharp sauce.

ROMEO: And is it not, then, well served into a sweet

MERCUTIO: O, here’s a wit of cheveril that stretches
from an inch narrow to an ell broad.

ROMEO: I stretch it out for that word “broad,” which
added to the goose, proves thee far and wide a
broad goose.

Romeo and Mercutio
The goose is well-represented in Romeo and Juliet during a feisty battle of wits between Romeo and Mercutio. Illustration by printmaker Thomas Sherratt (mid- or late 19th century). Folger Shakespeare Library

It was considerate of Romeo to leave out the most disparaging goose phrase while teasing Mercutio: the “Winchester goose,” a term for prostitutes and syphilis.7 This phrase appears in Henry VI, Part 1 when the Duke of Gloucester is sparring with Cardinal Winchester. After accusing the cardinal of giving indulgences to prostitutes, Gloucester appropriately calls the cardinal a Winchester goose, as it is implied earlier that the cardinal owns brothels:

Henry VI, Part 1 (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 33)

GLOUCESTER: Stand back, thou manifest conspirator,
Thou that contrived’st to murder our dead lord,
Thou that giv’st whores indulgences to sin!
I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

WINCHESTER: Nay, stand thou back. I will not budge a foot.
This be Damascus; be thou cursèd Cain
To slay thy brother Abel, if thou wilt.

GLOUCESTER: Winchester goose, I cry “a rope, a rope!”
Now beat them hence; why do you let them stay?—
Thee I’ll chase hence, thou wolf in sheep’s array.—
Out, tawny coats, out, scarlet hypocrite!

The goose appears in yet another form in Hamlet, as the Prince of Denmark, Rosencranz, and Guildenstern are discussing the actors that have arrived to perform a play. According to Rosencranz, the players are less popular than they once were. When Hamlet asks why, Rosencranz explains that “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills,” meaning satirical playwrights strike fear in their audiences:

Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2, Line 357)

ROSENCRANTZ: Nay, their endeavor keeps in the wonted
pace. But there is, sir, an aerie of children, little
eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are
most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the
fashion and so ⌜berattle⌝ the common stages (so
they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid
of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.

This dialogue cracks the door open to a fascinating rabbit hole in Shakespeare’s early modern world: the curious culture of writing quills. According to Dr. Rebecca Ann Bach in her book Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature, selecting a good writing quill was a meticulous process. Not every feather was suitable for writing, supported by these specific instructions from the Venetian writing master Giovannantonio Tagliente (1524):

A good quill should have five qualities. It should: a) be large of its kind, (b) be hard, (c) be round, (d) be narrow, (e) be taken from the right wing, so that it does not bend in the wrong direction when you hold it in your hand. Feathers taken from the wild goose are very good, but those of the domestic goose are much better than all the rest, especially if you want to write letters with their correct measure and proportion. Many use the feather of the swan because of its size and hardiness.8

The humble goose earns some respect by supplying learned people with the best writing quills. Thought, imagination, and writing were believed to be divine qualities. In this illustration, an angel dictates to Saint Matthew (1633). Folger Shakespeare Library

Writing was a revered skill of the well-learned, so the suitability of a goose’s feathers for writing bestowed respect upon the unassuming bird. In the creature hierarchy of the Renaissance, humans were perceived to be near God, thanks to their intellect, morality, and imagination. Birds were also perceived as closely connected to God because flight symbolized physical proximity to heaven.9 The feather quill served as a tangible emblem of the bond shared between birds and humans and their mutual divine associations. “Flight of thought” elevated men with birds, as supported by this line from Henry VI, Part II, when the king and his cabinet enjoy a day of falconing:

Henry VI, Part II (Act II, Scene 2, Line 5)

KING HENRY [to Gloucester]: But what a point, my lord, your falcon made,
And what a pitch she flew above the rest!
To see how God in all his creatures works!
Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.

I hope you enjoyed this wild goose chase through Shakespeare’s bird references. Thank you for following along with this series. Wishing all Shakespeare and Beyond readers a very happy holiday season!

  1. Harting, James Edmund. The Birds of Shakespeare. London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871.
  2. Greenoak, Francesca. All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981. 76-77.
  3. “Greylag Goose Facts.” RSPB, Accessed 13 Dec. 2023.
  4. Phipson, Emma. Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time, Facsimile ed., Glastonbury: The Lost Library, 1883. 233.
  5. Greenoak, Francesca. All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981. 76-77.
  6. Harting, James Edmund. The Birds of Shakespeare. London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871.
  7. Zeigler, Ehren, host. “None Shall Pass.” Chop Bard. Episode 183, October 2018.
  8. A. S. Osley. Scribes and Sources: Handbooks of the Chancery Hand in the Sixteenth Century. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980. 61.
  9. Bach, Rebecca Ann. Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature. New York: Routledge, 2018. 42.