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Shakespeare & Beyond

Owls in the early modern imagination: Ominous omens and pitiable sages

Screech owl
Screech owl
Screech owl

Conrad Gessner. Icones animalium quadrupedum. 1560. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Owls were bad omens for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The general of the French forces, facing an English emissary in Henry VI, Part 1, calls him “Thou ominous and fearful owl of death, / Or nation’s terror and their bloody scourge!” (4.2.15) Similarly, when Richard III receives bad news on the battlefield, he reacts by shouting “Out on you, owls! Nothing but songs of death” and striking the messenger: “There, take thou that till thou bring better news” (4.4.536-537). When in King Henry VI, Part 3 the titular king wants to wound Richard, he says “The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign” (5.6.36).


Really enjoyed this! As you might note from my email I am a fan of the Owl. Look forward to reading the other articles posted . I like to share things like this with my students as examples of interesting aspects of history and they way all things ( areas of study ) are connected . LIfe and learning are a web. Which begs the question will there be an arachnid connection!

Theresa Clarkson-Farrell — May 27, 2020