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Shakespeare & Beyond

Birds of Shakespeare: The loon

With the loon, 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

Red-Throated Loon (Gavia stellata) by Missy Dunaway, 30x22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

Painting key

Fauna: 1 red-throated loon in winter plumage, 1 red-throated loon in summer plumage with chick.

Objects: 2 red-throated loon eggs, 2 English daggers ca. 1550 – 1600, 4 English seals ca. 1675 – 1700, 16 red-throated loon feathers, 4 royal Scottish seal impressions (left to right: William “the Lion” King of Scots, William “the Lion” King of Scots, Alexander III King of Scots, Mathildis of Scotland), 1 scrolled message with the seal of Duncan II King of Scots

Literary guide to the loon in Shakespeare

For August, we visit the loon, my favorite summertime bird. Despite this bird’s reputation for having a laughing call, there is nothing funny about its appearance in Shakespeare’s collected works. The Bard mentions this handsome diver just once, in Macbeth.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most bird-adorned plays, with 23 avian references, placing it behind Hamlet (24), The Taming of the Shrew (25), Romeo and Juliet (26), Troilus and Cressida (27), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (27), and Henry VI Part 3 (28).1 Compared to its overall word count, it has the second-highest bird density after A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In Macbeth, birds symbolize characters, reenact themes, and deliver prophecies. Their meanings can be complex or straightforward. Like so many other birds I’ve researched, “loon” is a cursory insult; in this case, a synonym for a coward.2

The loon appears in the final act when the king is enraged by threats to his throne and snaps at a messenger reporting on the English forces amassing against him. Macbeth describes the messenger as a “cream-faced loon” and orders him to “prick thy face and over-red thy fear.” This could be viewed as a stage direction for the messenger, who should look so shaken by the opposition’s number of soldiers that he is pale with fear. The messenger’s look of panic seems to annoy Macbeth, who flippantly interrupts his message and tells the messenger to gain courage and get more color in his cheeks:

Macbeth, Act V, Scene 3, Line 12

Enter Servant.

MACBETH: The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose-look?

SERVANT: There are ten thousand—

MACBETH: Geese, villain?

SERVANT: Soldiers, sir.

MACBETH: Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-livered boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! Those linen cheeks of thine
Are counselors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

SERVANT: The English force, so please you.

Macbeth, the warrior king, references the loon in the fifth act of Macbeth. Illustration by Pierre Antoine Branche (mid-19th century). Folger Shakespeare Library

Two species of loons are found in the United Kingdom: the red-throated loon, a common diver in the British Isles, and the black-throated loon, which is present in small numbers. The 19th-century British naturalist James Edmund Harting offers a third possibility: a great-crested grebe, which is called a loon in Norfolk, England.3

The great-crested grebe has a shockingly white face that contrasts with the rest of its dark, pigmented plumage. This matches Macbeth’s description of a “cream-faced loon.” Its white facial feathers convinced other artists of James Edmund Harting’s hypothesis, such as Lavonia Stockelbach, who illustrated the great-crested grebe for her book, The Birds of Shakespeare (1953).

I hesitated when considering the grebe. Shakespeare wasn’t from the Norfolk area, and Macbeth in Scotland probably wouldn’t use Norfolk-specific vernacular. I looked closely at the black-throated and red-throated loons for clues. As it turns out, the striking colors that define the loon are its summer plumage. It wears a drabber coat in winter—and its face is white. Because other artists chose the grebe, I wanted to represent an alternative, so I painted the abundant red-throated loon in winter plumage.

The loon stars in many compelling myths in Native American, Siberian, and Scandinavian folklore.4 I found very few tales surrounding the loon in Scotland or early modern England. Instead, I brought in symbols to represent Macbeth. Two daggers point threateningly at loon eggs, alluding to the play’s brutality. 17th-century wax seals refer to the messenger compared to a loon. The wax seal securing a scrolled message is based on King Duncan’s actual royal seal, which I found in History of Scottish Seals by Walter de Gray Birch (1905). The border of feathers flows in opposite directions, and I intentionally employed opposing light sources on the eggs to allude to the play’s supernatural occurrences and power inversions.

My painting features the royal seals of various Scottish rulers, including King Duncan’s stamp which encloses a scrolled message.

  1. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871)
  2. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 258-259.
  3. Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 258-259.
  4. Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 22-23.