The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and the Turtle

"The Phoenix and the Turtle" is an allegorical poem about the death of ideal love by William Shakespeare. It is widely considered to be one of his most obscure works and has led to many conflicting interpretations. ["Oxford Anthology of Literature of Renaissance England", J. Holander, F. Kermode (eds), OUP, 1973, p.424.] It has also been called "the first great published metaphysical poem". [Cheney, Patrick Gerard "The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry", Cambridge University Press, 2007, p117] The title "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is a conventional label. As published, the poem was untitled.


It was first published in 1601 as a supplement to a long poem by Robert Chester, entitled "Love's Martyr". The full title of Chester's book explains the content:

:"Love's Martyr: or Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. A Poeme enterlaced with much varietie and raritie; now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato Caeliano, by Robert Chester. With the true legend of famous King Arthur the last of the nine Worthies, being the first Essay of a new Brytish Poet: collected out of diuerse Authenticall Records. To these are added some new compositions of seuerall moderne Writers whose names are subscribed to their seuerall workes, vpon the first subiect viz. the Phoenix and Turtle.

The "turtle" in the title is the turtle dove, not the shelled reptile. Chester prefaced his poem with a short dedication addressed to the phoenix and turtle-dove, traditional emblems of devoted love:

:Phoenix of beautie, beauteous, Bird of any

:To thee I do entitle all my labour,

:More precious in mine eye by far then many

:That feedst all earthly sences with thy savour:

:Accept my home-writ praises of thy loue,

:And kind acceptance of thy Turtle-doue

Chester's main poem is a long allegory, incorporating the story of King Arthur, in which the relationship between the birds is explored, and its symbolism articulated. It is followed by a brief collection of short poems by the "least and chiefest of our moderne writers, with their names sub-scribed to their particular workes". These include, in addition to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston and the anonymous "Vatum Chorus" and "Ignoto". All use the same imagery.


In addition to an allegory of an ideal marriage, the poem can be seen as an elucidation of the relationship between truth and beauty, or of fulfilled love, in the context of Renaissance Neoplatonism. [Zezmer, D.M., "Guide to Shakespeare", 1976, New York, p.88] Shakespeare introduces a number of other birds, drawing on earlier literature about the "parliament of birds", to portray the death of the lovers as the loss of an ideal that can only be lamented.

Several attempts have been made to link the lovers of the poem to historical individuals:

John and Ursula Salusbury

Because Chester dedicated the main poem to Sir John Salusbury and his wife Ursula Stanley, it has been argued that all the poems in the collection, including Shakespeare's, also celebrate the couple. Salusbury was a courtier at the court of Elizabeth I, and was a member of the powerful Salusbury Family of Wales. A difficulty with this view is the fact that the couple are known to have had ten children, but the poem refers to the relationship as a childless "married chastity". This seeming "error" is commented on elsewhere in the collection by John Marston. The identification of the Salusburys as the subject was first argued in detail by Carleton Brown in 1913. ["Poems by Sir John Salusbury and Robert Chester" by Carleton Brown.]

Elizabeth and Essex

The theory that both Chester's and Shakespeare's poems were intended to refer to the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was first proposed by A.B. Grossart in 1878, and was revived by William Matchett in 1965. ["The Phoenix and the Turtle: Shakespeare's Poem and Chester's Loues Martyr" by William H. Matchett; reviewed by Thomas P. Harrison, "Modern Philology", Vol. 64, No. 2 (Nov., 1966), pp. 155-157.] Many authors who reject the identification of the lovers as Essex and Elizabeth nevertheless argue that the events of Essex's rebellion and execution in early 1601 may lie behind some of the more obscure symbolism in the poem and the others in the collection. [John Finnis and Patrick Martin, "Another turn for the Turtle", "The Times", April 18, 2003]

Catholic martyrs

A different interpretation is that the poem is a secretly Catholic eulogy. This argument is linked to claims that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathiser. Clare Asquith has suggested that it commemorates the Jesuit martyrs Robert Southwell and Henry Walpole. [Asquith, Clare, "Shakespeare Newsletter", 50, 2001.] John Finnis and Patrick Martin argue that it is about Anne Line, a Catholic executed at Tyburn in 1601. ["Times Literary Supplement", April 18, 2003, p.12-14] Anne Line and her young husband Roger were separated when he was exiled due to his Catholic activism. He died on the continent. She was later convicted for illegal performance of the Mass and the harbouring of priests, leading to her execution. Like Shakespeare's couple the Lines had no children. [ [ BBC page: Shakespeare and Anne Line] ]

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, another proponent of the view that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, argued that it was intended as a memorial to the Earl of Essex and his friend Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. They were both sentenced to death on the first day of their trial for treason, on February 19th, 1601, though Southampton's sentence was later commuted.

According to these interpretations the poem is an allegory containing an imaginary Catholic requiem to the deceased couples. In Hammerschmidt-Hummel's view, other "birds" mentioned are Anthony Shirley, Francis Bacon, Robert Cecil, James of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I. [Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, "William Shakespeare—Seine Zeit—Sein Leben—Sein Werk" (Mainz: von Zabern, 2003] Finnis and Martin argue that the "bird of loudest lay" is the composer William Byrd and that the crow is Father Henry Garnet.

Text of the poem

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Let the bird of loudest lay, On the sole Arabian tree, Herald sad and trumpet be, To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou, shrieking harbinger, Foul pre-currer of the fiend, Augur of the fever's end, To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict Every fowl of tyrant wing, Save the eagle, feather'd king: Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white, That defunctive music can, Be the death-divining swan, Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou, treble-dated crow, That thy sable gender mak'st With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st, 'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence: Love and constancy is dead; Phoenix and the turtle fled In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov'd, as love in twain Had the essence but in one; Two distincts, division none: Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder; Distance, and no space was seen 'Twixt the turtle and his queen; But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine, That the turtle saw his right Flaming in the phoenix' sight: Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appall'd, That the self was not the same; Single nature's double name Neither two nor one was call'd.

Reason, in itself confounded, Saw division grow together; To themselves yet either-neither, Simple were so well compounded

That it cried how true a twain Seemeth this concordant one! Love hath reason, reason none If what parts can so remain.

Whereupon it made this threne To the phoenix and the dove, Co-supreme and stars of love; As chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, truth, and rarity. Grace in all simplicity, Here enclos'd in cinders lie.

Death is now the phoenix' nest; And the turtle's loyal breast To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:-- 'Twas not their infirmity, It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be: Beauty brag, but 'tis not she; Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair That are either true or fair; For these dead birds sigh a prayer.



* [ Straumann, Heinrich. “‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ in its Dramatic Context.” ES 58 (1977) 494-500.]
* [ Sims, James. "Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle": A Reconsideration of "Single Natures Double Name"]
* [ "Gillham, Christine. Single Natures Double Name":1 Some Comments on The Phoenix and Turtle]
* [ The full text of Chester's "Love's Martyr"]
* Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel: "The Life and Times of William Shakespeare 1564-1616" (London: Chaucer Press, 2007).

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