Phoenix and the Turtle

Commentary

Hyder Edward Rollins remarked that "The riddle of Shakespeare's poem has not been, probably never will be, solved to the satisfaction of all scholars." The only points of agreement are that Shakespeare wrote the piece (an issue that itself was long debated) and that it was published in 1601 as part of Loves Martyr, a collection of poems assembled by Robert Chester, who wrote most of the volume and who probably engaged the other contributors: Ben Jonson, John Marston, George Chapman, and William Shakespeare, as well as "Vatum Chorus" and "Ignoto," one or both of whom may also have been Jonson. 

The subtitle states that Loves Martyr "allegorically shadow [s] the truth of Love." The nature of that allegory remains a matter of debate. Many writers have suggested that the female phoenix represents Elizabeth, the turtle-dove the Earl of Essex, whom Elizabeth loved but whose execution she ordered after his abortive rebellion in February, 1601, a few months before the publication of Chester's volume. Though Elizabeth was not yet dead, the loss of Essex was tantamount to her demise. Given the political risk of making such a statement, this interpretation has not found universal acceptance. Others agree that the phoenix is Elizabeth—the equation was a commonplace—but the turtle represents either some unnamed individual or England itself. The most popular contender is the Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who was once a favorite courtier of the queen and some sources say lovers, but he fell out of her favor.  Years later, feeling she had lost he way with the throne, Devereux, mounted an unsuccessful rebellion against the queen for which he was tried and executed.  The poem would thus celebrate the ties between ruler and ruled. 

These interpretations ignore the fact that the poem is dedicated to Sir John Salusbury, whose knighting on June 14, 1601, by Elizabeth was the occasion for the publication of Chester's book. Carleton Brown, who edited the poems of Chester and Salusbury in 1914, sought to put Salusbury at the center of Shakespeare's poem by interpreting the turtle as the new-made knight, the phoenix as his wife, Ursula, the illegitimate daughter of Henry Stanley, fourth Earl of Derby, whose coat of arms depicts an eagle and child (hence the invitation of the eagle to the funeral). Still others treat Shakespeare as the subject of his poem and interpret the poem as mourning the death of the friendship between the poet and the third Earl of Southampton. 

These varying interpretations affect the dating of the poem. E. A. J. Honigmann, who links the poem to the Stanleys, suggests that the work was composed in 1586, perhaps even before John Salusbury married. If the poem deals with Shakespeare's break with Southampton, the poem would have been composed in the mid-1590's; if it deals with the death of Essex, it must date from 1601. Other debates concern the appropriateness of placing the second article in the title and the number of poems Shakespeare contributed. Vatum Chorus, Ignoto, Jonson, and Marston each contributed paired poems, while Chapman wrote one for the volume. Reason's five stanzas are headed "Threnos," and the rhyme scheme and stanza form differ from the rest of the verses. Thus, the separate title may indicate that The Phoenix and the Turtle is in fact two related but distinct poems. Critics cannot even agree on the tone of the piece. Robert Ellrodt found the poem "throughout funereal," whereas Peter Dronke thought it "exhilirating." 

As these arguments suggest, the poem is enigmatic. Perhaps the best approach to the work is to accept the subtitle at face value: The poem is an allegory about love and its demise. While the occasion of the poem was the knighting of John Salusbury, the work need not therefore be occasional. Rather, Shakespeare sets out to demonstrate the various paradoxes that love embodies. The second stanza of the anthem (stanza 7 of the poem) claims that the lovers were both two and one. The language echoes the trinitarian three-in-one. Shakespeare, like John Donne, uses religious imagery to describe human love because both are forms of transcendence. The next stanza deals with another paradox: Love allows two bodies to occupy one space. In the following two stanzas Shakespeare offers the third paradox, the loss of identity as each lover becomes the other. These Neoplatonic ideas also inform Shakespeare's sonnets. 

Reason, listening to these claims made by an unnamed speaker, finds them confusing and wonders in the final stanza of the anthem whether love can so reconcile opposites. Reason acknowledges here that the lovers appear to be one, but are they in fact? Reason's response is to acknowledge the assertions of the anthem but to add that, like the phoenix, these lovers were unique. They leave "no posterity," no successors who unite truth and beauty or who possess either quality in its absolute form. Some may claim to do so, but they are deceived (or attempting to deceive others). Those with a portion of the beauty or truth that the dead birds possess should go to the tomb of the deceased to pray. 

Reason's elegiac tone and sense of a fallen world reflect the tragic mode of the plays Shakespeare was writing when The Phoenix and the Turtle was published and probably composed. It falls between Hamlet, in which the times are out of joint, and Troilus and Cressida, a dark satire on love. Hamlet's Ophelia and Cressida are both beautiful, but they are not trustworthy. One may see in The Phoenix and the Turtle an echo of Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) and a foreshadowing of the deaths of Cordelia and Lear in King Lear (c. 1605) and Antony and Cleopatra in the play named for them (c. 1606). True love is rare, these works say, and it cannot endure in a postlapsarian world.

 

 

To view other The Phoenix and the Turtle sections:

Main Poem Page       Poem Text         Synopsis         Commentary

 

To view other Poems  sections:

Poems Main Page      Venus and Adonis     The Rape of Lucrece      A Lover's Complaint     The Phoenix and the Turtle

 

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